Updated 17:04 PM PHT Thu, January 12, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — After failing to crush the Abu Sayyaf group in 2016, the Philippine military sets an ambitious target for this year: Defeat the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist and lawless groups within six months.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said government forces are determined to topple the Abu Sayyaf group, Maute group, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
But of these three, the Armed Forces is prioritizing the Maute group, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año said.
"Kailangan talagang bantayan dito ng husto, yung mga Maute group na nagpaplanong magconduct ng terroristic activities sa mga cities natin (We really need to guard against the Maute group which is planning to conduct terrorist activities in our cities)," Año said in a chance interview with reporters Friday, after the DND-AFP New Year's Call in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
The group is blamed for the Davao night market blast that killed about a dozen people in September. The military believes the Maute group is seeking the attention of international terrorist network ISIS.
Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte promised a "day of reckoning" for the Abu Sayyaf Group, that beheaded two Canadian nationals and kidnapped several Indonesians and Malaysians. Over 7,000 troops were deployed to conduct heightened military operations against the ASG.
Some 27 hostages are still held by the ASG today, authorities said.
Meanwhile, members of the BIFF, a breakaway group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which is seeking an independent Islamic state, are accused of attacking the North Cotabato District Jail in Kidapawan City in January 4, resulting in the escape of over 150 inmates. The BIFF has denied involvement in the attack.
The AFP says it will conduct an assessment in June--and hopes to accomplish a "significant defeat" of these lawless groups by then.
To defeat "means we have rendered them, their capabilities very minimal," Año explained.
A total of 51 battalions--composed of thousands of soldiers--have been deployed in Mindanao to fight the ASG, Maute, and BIFF, Año said.
10,000 more troops by 2018
Lorenzana, however, admitted the possibility of failing to meet the June deadline, but he said the terrorist and lawless groups should still be neutralized within 2017.
He said Duterte has approved the recruitment of 10,000 more soldiers to beef up the Armed Forces. But they still have to undergo training throughout the year, and would probably be ready for battle by 2018, he added.
Año said the military is now strengthening their intelligence operations and encouraging the communities in conflict areas to help them--by reporting suspicious activities to authorities,.
He said the government is also focused on peace talks with armed groups of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army (CPP-NPA), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and MILF - to attain long-lasting peace in Mindanao.