MANILA, Philippines – Suspected Abu Sayyaf extremists kidnapped a Filipino couple in the southern Philippines on Sunday, adding to a group of hostages they are holding that includes two European tourists, military officials said.
Bonifacio Salinas and his wife got off a motorcycle taxi and were walking back to their home in Jolo town in Sulu province after dawn when six gunmen approached and dragged them into a van, marine Capt. Ryan Lacuesta said.
Marines and police were tracking down the militants and the couple, who are employees of Jolo’s water supply agency. No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction, but Abu Sayyaf militants were considered the main suspects, Lacuesta said.
The gunmen fled with their captives toward Patikul town, where Abu Sayyaf factions hold several hostages in mountain encampments, including two European bird watchers who were abducted two years ago, Lacuesta said.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups, is one of at least three armed Islamic groups outside of a peace deal the government expects to sign soon with the main insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Filipino officials acknowledge that the autonomy deal would not immediately halt decades of violence in the south, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, but would shift the 11,000-strong main Muslim group to help foster economic development and peace in the Philippines’ poorest regions.
U.S.-backed local offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which has had past links with al-Qaida militants, but the group, which has more than 300 gunmen split into several factions, remains a national security concern.
Philippine marines raided an Abu Sayyaf encampment in Sulu’s Talipao town on Feb. 8, killing six militants.
Since the marine assault, Abu Sayyaf militants have retaliated twice by attacking civilian and military convoys, sparking clashes that killed a marine soldier, an Abu Sayyaf fighter and a pro-government militia, according to the military.