Two United States soldiers have been killed in a landmine attack in the southern Philippines, marking the first deaths of US troops since 2002. They are believed to have been targeted in a roadside bombing by Abu Sayyaf, the Al Qaeda-linked militant group fighting to carve out an Islamic state.
The incident suggests the continued strength of militants in and around the island of Jolo, despite a sustained military operation to oust them.
It also adds to recent controversy that US counterterrorism troops assisting the Philippines military as advisers are breaking their rules of engagement and entering into combat with Abu Sayyaf militants.
The battle for control of Sulu, a southern province comprised of several islands, is small by military standards. Abu Sayyaf is believed to have only 400 militants left in the area, and the US military presence on the ground is only 600, according to the AP.
But the conflict has led to dozens of deaths, several large terrorist attacks, and kidnappings. Militant leaders have eluded capture for years, thanks to the rugged terrain and their jungle hideouts.
The deaths come as the Philippines military launched an operation last month against Abu Sayyaf in the area that has left 53 people dead, including eight Philippine Marines killed last week, according to Reuters.
Tuesday’s attack struck a detachment of marines and US Navy soldiers moving between the villages of Kagay and Luamsaing in Indanan, in Sulu province, which is known as an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, reports the Inquirer, a Philippines English-language newspaper. The US soldiers, who were killed while in a Humvee, were part of an engineering team that was helping to build a road in Kagay, the Inquirer adds.
Officially, US military personnel are not allowed to engage in combat in the Philippines unless attacked, and act only as advisers training the Philippines army in counterinsurgency points out the BBC.
But in recent weeks allegations have surfaced that US troops defied the rules of engagement and entered into combat with Abu Sayyaf militants. Last week US soldiers were accused of opening fire on a mosque in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, reports the Dateline Philippines news service.