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Couple kidnapped by Islamists in the Philippines freed in military operation

By REGINE CABATO | Washington Post | Published: November 25, 2019

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine military said Monday it rescued a British national and his Filipino wife who had been kidnapped by local militants linked to the Islamic State.

Allan Hyrons, aged 71, and Wilma Hyrons, 59, were abducted last month by Abu Sayyaf fighters at a beach resort the couple owned in the southern Philippines.

They were rescued at around 8 a.m. Monday in the island province of Sulu after a 20-minute firefight, said regional military commander Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, who attributed the operation's success to support from the public.

"The valuable [information] they shared to us led the troops to the hideouts of the [Abu Sayyaf] bandits," he said in a statement. He added that Abu Sayyaf militants were still holding three Indonesians captive.

Kidnapping for ransom is a common practice for Abu Sayyaf, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization. The group was previously linked to al-Qaida before aligning itself with the rival Islamic State.

Various abductions, bombings and killings have been attributed to the group, which splintered off from an Islamic separatist movement in the early 1990s.

In May, abducted Dutch birdwatcher Ewold Horn was killed during a military operation. A cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, was bombed in January.

The rescue of the Hyrons came at the end of a three-day operation, which the military said left six militant fighters dead. There was no immediate response to the operation from Abu Sayyaf on Monday.

Among those believed killed was Sibih Pisih, who is reported to have led off-the-water kidnappings around Malaysia's eastern Sabah state. The military also said he was wanted over the massacre of 22 civilians in Sulu in 2014.

The military last week reported the death of Talha Jumsah, known as Abu Talha, an Islamic State-trained expert on improvised explosive devices believed to have facilitated suicide bombings in the province.

While the Islamic State has been weakened in the Middle East, analysts say its presence has grown in Southeast Asia. Foreign and local Islamic State-affiliated militants were involved in the attempted occupation of the Philippine city of Marawi in 2017.

The militants' continued ability to operate in the southern Philippines despite years of military offensives demonstrates the difficulty of stamping out extremist ideology in the region, which is wracked by poverty and conflict.

Abu Sayyaf "is getting smaller but becoming more resilient due to the emergence of new armed groups engaged in various crimes in Mindanao," said Rommel Banlaoi, a Filipino security analyst who has written extensively on the Islamist group. "The success of the rescue mission has strongly demonstrated the importance of effective special military operations with the support of foreign partners and local ground enablers."

(c)  2019, The Washington Post

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