Malaysian security forces have killed a key member of a Philippine armed group in a shootout in waters off Sabah in Borneo, according to the Philippine military.
Abu Sayyaf commander Abraham Hamid had led the kidnapping of several foreigners from a tourist resort in the southern Philippines last year, two of whom were later beheaded.
“The death of Hamid is a big blow to the [Abu Sayyaf] as it neutralised one of the notorious bandits and will degrade their capability for spotting and kidnapping victims in the future,” said Major Filemon Tan, regional military spokesperson for the Philippines, on Saturday.
Tan said Hamid had also been involved in the kidnapping of four Indonesian crewmen in April.
Two other fighters were killed alongside Hamid in the shootout with Malaysian police in Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah, he said.
Separately, the Philippine military said that at least three soldiers were killed in the southern Philippine island of Sulu, following a gun battle with Abu Sayyaf fighters.
Seventeen other soldiers were reported injured in the encounter, which lasted for almost two hours, in Patikul town on Saturday.
In recent months, government forces have been carrying out major operations against the Abu Sayyaf, which beheaded two Canadian hostages after demands for millions of dollars were not met.
The armed group released two others, a Norwegian and Filipina, after ransoms were believed to be paid.
There have been a spate of kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors at sea in recent months that have been blamed on the Abu Sayyaf.
While Hamid and two fighters were killed, Sabah security forces have arrested two others, Tan said.
Abdul Rashid Harun, Sabah police chief, told AFP news agency the incident was the Malaysian authorities’ first direct confrontation with suspected kidnappers in the waters off eastern Sabah.
On his blog, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, praised his security forces and said his country would cooperate with the Philippines to fight the recurring kidnappings.
The Abu Sayyaf, a loose network of armed fighters based on remote islands in the southern Philippines, has defied more than a decade of military operations.
The group was formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but has been on a lucrative kidnapping spree in recent years.