MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine forces have arrested nine women who were related to Abu Sayyaf commanders and militants in the south and could have been “potential suicide bombers,” the military said Tuesday.
The women were captured Friday in raids on houses in three towns in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, said Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, Jr., who heads the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
The southern province is the stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, which is known for ransom kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.
Troops also seized bomb parts, including batteries, detonating cords, suspected explosive powder and oil, an iron pipe and nails, along with a grenade, cellphones, backpacks and a sketch of a suspected targeted bombing area, the military said in a statement.
“We are always ready to welcome those who wish to return to the folds of the law but if you will refuse to do so, we will surely hunt you down and prevent you from inflicting havoc in the communities,” said Maj. Gen. William Gonzales, who heads government forces in Sulu.
“May this serve as a clear message to the supporters and remaining members of the Abu Sayyaf,” Gonzales said.
The suspects would face criminal charges for illegal possession of explosives, military officials said, adding that intelligence and surveillance helped troops track down the suspects. It was not immediately possible to reach the arrested suspects to get their comments.
Among those arrested were three daughters and a sister of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the Abu Sayyaf leader who was wounded in a gunbattle with troops in July last year and died a few days later in the mountainous hinterlands off Sulu’s Patikul town.
A few weeks after Sawadjaan’s death, two widows of Abu Sayyaf militants separately detonated bombs in suicide attacks that killed 14 people, including soldiers, and wounded 75 others in Jolo town in Sulu. The military said then that the bombings, the worst extremist attacks in the country last year, may have been staged by the Abu Sayyaf to avenge the death of Sawadjaan, who was believed to have been designated by the Islamic State group as its leader in the southern Philippines.
The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf, which has been considerably weakened by years of battle setbacks, military offensives and surrenders but remains a national security threat.