Abu Sayyaf gunmen killed at least 18 villagers, including women and children, in a road attack Monday as the civilians traveled in two vans to visit relatives and celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in the southern Philippines, military officials said.
The brazen attack on the civilians, one of the bloodiest by the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, also wounded about a dozen other villagers, officials said.
About 40 to 50 Abu Sayyaf militants, armed with assault rifles, staged the attack in a coastal village in Talipao town in predominantly Muslim Sulu province, where the militants have survived in jungle encampments despite years of U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives, marine Brig. Gen. Martin Pinto and other military officials said. Sulu, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila, is one of the country's poorest provinces, Associated Press reported.
The militants opened fire on the vans, killing 16 villagers. Two children among 13 wounded villagers later died in a hospital, Pinto said.
The motive for the attack was not immediately clear, but Pinto said it may have been sparked by a family feud involving some of the militants.
Among those killed were at least four members of a Talipao civilian security force called Barangay Police Action Team that has been helping the military fight the jungle-based militants in recent months, Pinto said.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 armed fighters split into several factions, was organized in the early 1990s in the south, but it has been crippled by government operations and endures largely due to huge ransoms from kidnappings.
Abu Sayyaf 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.
The 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 that calls for the creation of a more powerful and potentially larger autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country.