MANILA: The Philippines’ military on Tuesday confirmed the death of Hatib Hadjan Sawadjaan, one of the top leaders of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the designated Daesh emir in Mindanao.
Sawadjaan was added by the US to its list of global terrorists in 2019 and named as the mastermind behind a deadly cathedral bombing that same year.
The attack, which authorities said was carried out by an Indonesian couple, killed 23 people and injured 109.
Authorities said earlier that Sawadjaan had suffered fatal injuries during an encounter with government troops in a jungle near Patikul town, Sulu province, in July. But there was no official confirmation until Tuesday.
Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr. confirmed Sawadjaan's death, saying there were no more sightings of him.
“According to witnesses he died on July 7 after a fierce gunbattle with Scout Rangers on July 6,” Vinluan told Arab News.
In addition to the Jolo Cathedral bombing, Sawadjaan was accused of being behind a suicide attack in Basilan province that was believed to have been carried out by a Moroccan militant.
Sawadjaan also oversaw the kidnapping of Arab News Asia bureau chief Baker Atyani in 2012 when he was working for Al Arabiya. Atyani was held captive for 18 months by the group before being released in Dec. 2013.
The announcement of Sawadjaan's death followed a clash at sea between government forces and militants before dawn on Tuesday.
It led to the death of seven ASG fighters, including the militant leader’s alleged successor and two other members of the Sawadjaan clan.
Vinluan said troops from Joint Task Force - Sulu intercepted the ASG members aboard a twin-engine speed boat in the open waters of Sulu sea at around 2:15 a.m.
The military dispatched an attack helicopter and multi-purpose attack vessel after being tipped off about the group’s plan to conduct kidnapping activities.
“Exchange of fire transpired which lasted for 25 minutes and resulted in the sinking of the boat utilized by more or less seven ASG members,” Vinluan added.
He identified three of those believed to have been killed as Mannul Sawadjaan, Mujapar Sawadjaan, and Madsmar Sawadjaan.
Mannul and Mujapar are cousins of ASG bomb expert Mundi Sawadjaan, who is believed to be behind August’s double suicide bombing in Jolo, while Madsmar is Mundi’s brother, the official said.
The bombings killed 14 and injured 75.
Vinluan said Mannul had been selected to replace Hatib, according to ASG members who had surrendered.
Vinluan said government forces, while conducting a search and retrieval operation, spotted the boat used by the ASG members.
“The boat was cut in half with only the front portion remaining afloat while the rear must have sunk during the ramming by the navy ship-BA493,” he said.
The troops searched the remaining half of the boat and recovered firearms, ammunition shells, magazines, bandoliers, backpacks and sledgehammers.
“We will continue to conduct military operations, maximize intelligence monitoring, and exhaust all means to preempt the terroristic activities of the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu,” Vinluan said.
Joint Task Force-Sulu commander Maj. Gen William Gonzales said: "This particular achievement is a result of our united efforts with the people of the province, particularly our Tausug brothers, in bringing lasting peace and development in Sulu.”