Nine people including four Philippine security officials were killed Tuesday during clashes with the Abu Sayyaf kidnap group on a popular resort island as millions prepare to travel for the Easter holiday.
The incursion on Bohol island would be the first on a key Philippine tourist destination in recent years by the group which pledges allegiance to the Islamic State and often targets foreigners in the lawless southern Mindanao region.
Five gunmen were killed while four assault rifles and an improvised explosive device were recovered in the fighting, officials said.
“We’re quite worried… we are afraid of hostage situations,” said Khent Guimalan, who works at the front desk of the upscale Bohol Beach Club.
Following the clash authorities distributed photos of suspected Abu Sayyaf members asking locals to report any suspicious activity, according to Guimalan.
Local officials said the militants had used fast boats Monday to reach a village where they squared off against security forces early Tuesday.
Security forces have been on alert for “potential activity on the part of some lawless elements” during the peak Easter tourist season, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.
The armed men sailed upriver from Inabanga, a farming and fishing coastal community some 780 kilometers away from the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo in the southern Philippines, local police told AFP.
Bohol, about 600 kilometers south of Manila, is among the country’s top tourist draws.
Three soldiers and one policeman were killed in the fighting, according to a joint statement from the region’s military and police.
“The clearing operations are ongoing and we are pouring in more forces to help and assist,” Padilla, the military spokesman, added.
The authorities said sporadic fighting continued at sundown.
Bohol provincial governor Edgar Chatto said the violence was isolated in one village, where he said an unspecified number of residents had already fled to safety in nearby areas.
The Abu Sayyaf, also blamed for deadly bombings, has pledged allegiance to the Daesh group that holds swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Over the past year the Abu Sayyaf has been expanding its activities, boarding commercial and fishing vessels off their southern island stronghold of Jolo, near Malaysia, and abducting dozens of foreign crew members.
They beheaded a German tourist earlier this year and two Canadian tourists last year. All three were snatched at sea.