ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines, June 17 (UPI) -- Some 5,000 Philippine soldiers have been deployed to the southern province of Sulu to track down the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf that beheaded two Canadian hostages and is threatening two others.
At least 10 military battalions from the Philippine marines, army, air force and navy are converging on Sulu from land, sea and air, Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, said. Tan said the operation is not considered "wide scale" but will focus on areas known to back, the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf.
"We focus on areas known to be supportive of the Abu Sayyaf group. We will go to the communities known to provide refuge to bandits," he said. "There are selected target areas. These bandits have relatives and they hide in the populace."
The deployment comes as the militant group is demanding $13 million ransom for the release of Kjarten Sekkingstad, a citizen of Norway, and Marites Flor of the Philippines. They have been held hostage since being abducted from a resort in the Philippines in September. The extremist group beheaded two others taken hostage at the same time -- Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel.
Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Raami told The Star the group will be hard to locate. He said, "we run for cover, we put off all communications and we hide."
"We know the terrain," he said.
Thursday, incoming President Rodrigo Duterte said he is stepping up efforts to stop the militant group, including calling on his chief negotiator, Jesus Dureza, to open talks. Incoming National Police Chief Robert Dela Rosa suggested martial law may be imposed in some areas, allowing the government to impose strict curfews and suspend civil rights.