Sulu (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Clashes continue between the Philippine army and Islamic rebels of Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao (southern Philippines). In two days, 20 soldiers and seven militants were killed during operations to oust the militants from the province of Sulu, the most western part of the archipelago. Meanwhile, the army has launched a vast operation to free Jenifer Casilda Villarasa, wife of Sergeant Faustino Villarasa, kidnapped May 8 last by a group of Islamic extremists. The death toll is one of the most serious since the signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for peace in Mindanao.
Philippine Army spokesman, Gen. Dimingo Tutaan, said the military offensive was to secure the villages of the province and to ensure that civilians do not end up in the crossfire between regular troops and rebels.
Police in Sulu have deployed all of their forces to prevent attacks against vulnerable civilian targets. The province is part of the new Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the result of the framework agreements signed between MILF and the government in November. Despite the joint efforts between former rebels and government forces, the area is still prey to extremist groups who receive arms and training in Indonesia and Malaysia. Among them are Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group close to al-Qaeda was born in the 1990s and the Bansamoro Islamic Freedom Fighetrs (Biff), established in 2011 by former members of the MILF who still pursue the full independence of the region.
In recent years the city of Jolo, the capital of the province of Sulu in the southern Philippines, has been the scene of attacks and violence. The area is home to a large Christian minority, about 40% of the population, who live alongside the majority Muslims. The Christian community is often the target of attacks by extremists. On 7 July 2009 the cathedral of Mount Carmel was attacked: a grenade was thrown at the building causing the death of six people with about forty others wounded.