MANILA/ZAMBOANGA: Philippine troops launched an assault against Abu Sayyaf rebels in the south early Friday and sporadic clashes have left at least five militants dead and 29 soldiers wounded, officials said.
“There is still sporadic fighting in the area. Operations are still going on,” national military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
Gunmen took cover in a school during an initial gunbattle in a rural community on Basilan Island but it was not clear if they took hostages or if they have left, said army brigade commander Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez. The school was supposed to be empty because students were on a summer break.
Zagala said about 200 soldiers were deployed before dawn to assault a group of gunmen led by Abu Sayyaf commander Puruji Indama in Basilan’s Unkaya Pukan township.
Galvez said troops moved in after Indama and his men threatened and tried to extort money from a key road project in Basilan, a predominantly Muslim province and birthplace of the brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and bombings.
Troops initially clashed with a group of more than 30 Abu Sayyaf armed fighters, who were later reinforced by two separate groups of more than 30 other militants. Three militants were believed killed in initial fighting and two more were critically wounded in a second gunbattle, Galvez told The Associated Press by telephone as he directed the assault from Basilan.
Abu Sayyaf members are also believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of a Chinese tourist and a Filipina worker from a Malaysian dive resort on April 2.
It is thought that the hostages have been hidden on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.
The islands of Jolo and Basilan, which are about 70 km apart, are both known strongholds of the group.
But Zagala said the Basilan operation was not linked to the kidnapping in Malaysia.
“This is very specific. It is concentrated on Puruji Indama. He has long been targeted. It is separate from the kidnapping incident. There are other groups who are tasked to do that search,” he said.
Three soldiers were wounded by gunfire and 17 others sustained minor injuries due to shrapnel and flying debris in the two clashes, he said.
Government troops could not advance rapidly toward the fighters because they had to pass near communities of a larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with which the government recently signed a peace agreement. Under a ceasefire accord, troops have to coordinate their presence with the Moro rebel front when pursuing the smaller Abu Sayyaf to avoid accidental clashes.
“We’re still pursuing the Abu Sayyaf and there are sporadic fighting and sniping,” Galvez said.
It was not immediately clear what happened to Indama, a young but ruthless militant, who has been wanted by Philippine authorities for his alleged involvement in deadly bombings and kidnappings. Among those kidnapped was a former Australian soldier, who was freed last year after 15 months of jungle captivity and reported payment of ransom. Indama also has been blamed for the beheadings of 10 marines in Basilan in 2007, a widely condemned atrocity.
“We’re continuing the pressure,” Zagala said of the ongoing assault.
The group is still holding a number of hostages in the vast jungles of nearby Sulu province, including two European bird watchers, who were kidnapped two years ago.
Zagala said Friday’s operation is unrelated to a search for suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were believed to have abducted a 28-year-old Chinese tourist last week from a Malaysian resort off Borneo island then took her by speedboat to the southern Philippines.