New kidnappings, jailbreak hit restive Philippine island

:: Suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen abducted four workers in a school in a southern Philippine province where President Rodrigo Duterte visited troops waging an offensive against the militants, officials said Sunday.

About 20 militants barged into a grade school compound in Sulu province’s Patikul town shortly after midnight Saturday and seized six painters and carpenters, one of whom managed to escape and alerted the police. Army troops later rescued another worker.

Duterte pinned medals on wounded troops during a brief visit late Saturday to Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province about 950 km south of Manila.

The tough-talking president has ordered government forces to destroy the ransom-seeking militants, who still hold about 25 foreign and Filipino hostages in Sulu’s jungles.

Meanwhile, 14 inmates, including suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters and drug dealers, escaped early Sunday from a jail in a new building that also houses the police headquarters in a government compound in Sulu’s main town of Jolo, police said.

Three of those who escaped were gunned down by police and another was shot and captured. Army troops were helping police track down the rest with the use of military drones and sniffer dogs, a police statement said.

The new kidnappings and jailbreak reflect the diverse security challenges confronting Duterte’s administration in the south, where thousands of troops have been separately battling militants aligned with Daesh, who laid siege to the city of Marawi on May 23.

After nearly two months of fighting, more than 530 people, including 405 militants and 95 soldiers and police, have died in the violence in the lakeside city.

Backed by airstrikes, troops are fighting about 60 to 70 remaining militants, who are holding an unspecified number of civilian hostages in four Marawi communities in an offensive that Duterte said last week was winding down. He said the offensive will not stop until the last militant is killed.

Duterte, however, has said he would likely extend the martial law he imposed in the south because the situation in Marawi remains critical. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he gave the president his recommendation on the question of extending or ending martial rule last week.

Nearly 400,000 people, including most of Marawi’s 200,000 residents, have been displaced by the crisis and many have yearned to return home amid the misery in overcrowded evacuation centers.

Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, however, said Marawi remains fraught with danger, especially for children and women.

“There is no assurance that areas outside the main battle zone are already safe to reside and live in as incidents of cases of stray bullet victims have been reported,” Abella said.

“The clearing of the entire city of Marawi of explosives and booby traps left by terrorists, unexploded ordnance and other explosives is still ongoing. The danger and risks these pose still remain high.”

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