MANILA, Philippines – Muamar Askali, a subleader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) who also served as its spokesman, was among those killed in clashes with government forces in Inabanga, Bohol. (READ: 10 killed as gov't forces foil Abu Sayyaf attack in Bohol)
Lieutenant General Oscal Lactao, chief of the military's Central Command (Centcom), confirmed the information to Rappler in a text message on Wednesday morning, April 12.
Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Año later held a press conference to underscore the significance of Askali's death in the country's counterterrorism drive.
A police source who is in Inabanga also showed Rappler what he said was a photo of Askali after his body was recovered by government forces. At least 5 other ASG members were reportedly killed in the clashes, a military spokesman said Wednesday.
Askali is better known as Abu Rami, the name he gave in media interviews that he used to grant several times whenever the kidnap-for-ransom group issued ransom demands in exchange for the release of foreign hostages.
Local police identified him as the leader of the armed men who slipped into Bohol Monday night, April 10. They reached the famous tourist destination as the island prepared for the influx of tourists for the Holy Week break.
Residents of Inabanga town reported the presence of pumpboats to the police, who immediately coordinated with the military. The clashes, which killed 3 soldiers and a policeman, began at 5 am on Tuesday, April 11.
Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez said the death of Askali is a big blow to the Abu Sayyaf. Galvez is the chief of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) responsible for areas where the local terrorist group traditionally operates.
"It has a big impact. The damage will be felt when it comes to the group's projection of power outside Sulu. He's involved in attacks against foreigners. His capability to reach Bohol shows his aggressiveness," he said.
Askali's group slipped out of Mindanao as the military stepped up operations in the group's base in Jolo and neighboring islands in southern Mindanao.
Askali's group was behind the kidnapping of German hostage Jurgen Kantner last year. They beheaded him in February 2017 after the family failed to pay P30 million in ransom.
In 2014, he announced the full payment of P250-million ransom money in exchange for the release of two other German hostages.
"Dumating talaga ang demand na P250 million. Walang kulang, walang labis (The P250 million really arrived. Not a penny more, not a penny less)," was Askali's infamous statement back then.
The encounter between security forces and the armed group happened days after the United States issued a travel advisory warning of planned kidnappings by terrorist groups in Central Visayas.
At the time of the firefight, President Rodrigo Duterte was in Saudi Arabia for his weeklong visit to the Middle East.
The military has since sent reinforcements to Bohol. "We continue to bring in fresh troops to be able to assist those that are in the area, replace them if necessary, to allow for a more intensified clearing operation," military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said on CNN. – with a report from Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com