19 heading home for Eid gunned down by Abu Sayyaf in southern Philippines
Victims of attack on families travelling home for Eid include members of unofficial security force
Abu Sayyaf gunmen attacked Filipinos travelling to celebrate the end of Ramadan with their families yesterday, killing 19, including five children, in a brazen attack that was the bloodiest in recent years by the militant group, police and the military said.
Fourteen others were wounded as the group travelled in two vans in a coastal village in Talipao in predominantly Muslim Sulu province in the South, where the militants have survived in jungle encampments despite years of US-backed Philippine military offensives.
Some 40 to 50 Abu Sayyaf militants armed with assault rifles opened fire on the vans, marine Brigadier General Martin Pinto said. The motive was not immediately clear, but Pinto said some of the dead belonged to a civilian security force and were engaged in a clan feud with Abu Sayyaf.
Violent clan wars, known as rido, have complicated security worries in the country's south, which is already mired in decades-long Muslim rebellions.
Among those killed in the attack were at least four members of a Talipao civilian security force called a Barangay police action team that had been helping the military fight the militants in recent months, Pinto said.
Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala condemned "this heinous atrocity that victimised innocent civilians" adding the military "will continue its pursuit operations until those responsible are brought to justice".
"This attack cannot be justified by any ideology and shows the Abu Sayyaf's terroristic nature," Zagala said.
Five of the dead were aged seven to 15, and four of the wounded were children, including a three-year-old boy, a police report said. Possible family relationships among the travellers were not immediately clear.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and is blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines' recent history.
The group, which has about 300 armed fighters split into several factions, has been crippled by government operations and endures largely due to huge ransoms from kidnappings. It now holds about 10 hostages, including two German tourists seized in April and two birdwatchers, one Dutch and the other Swiss, who were kidnapped two years ago.
Abu Sayyaf is one of about four smaller Muslim insurgent groups outside of a peace deal signed by the Philippine government in March with the main rebel group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
It calls for the creation of a more powerful and potentially larger autonomous region for Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic country.
Sulu is one of the Philippines' poorest provinces.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse