MANILA/ZAMBOANGA: Philippine marines killed at least six extremists and captured one of their jungle lairs in fighting in the south, military officials said Monday.
Backed by village militias, the marines launched an assault over the weekend after several Abu Sayyaf militants were monitored in their jungle lair near Talipao town on Jolo Island, marine brigade commander Col. Jose Cenabre said.
Marine officers involved in the fighting said three militants were killed in a clash and three more died later in military shelling. Six village militias on the side of the marines were wounded.
Marines were clearing the captured Abu Sayyaf encampment of booby traps and searching for homemade bombs and rebel documents.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen are still holding more than a dozen hostages in jungle-clad Jolo in Sulu province, including two European bird watchers who were kidnapped last year. The captives were not in the Abu Sayyaf encampment that came under attack over the weekend, Cenabre said.
Founded in the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf is a small gang of self-styled militants blamed for the country’s worst terror attacks, including bombings and kidnappings.
The military says its ranks have dropped to about 300, from over 1,000 early in the previous decade, following US-assisted military operations that led to the capture or death of its key leaders.
US Special Forces have been rotating through Jolo and other parts of the southern Philippines for more than a decade to train local troops battling the group.
Washington lists the Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and bombings, as a terrorist organization. There are an estimated more than 300 Abu Sayyaf armed fighters who have survived years of US-backed Philippine offensives.
“Our firepower was controlled because we did not want any collateral damage. It was a surgical strike,” Cenabre said.
He said six militants were killed and six others were wounded during a 15-minute assault, but about 50 escaped after they put up strong resistance with heavy return fire.
Cenabre said it was not immediately clear whether the hostages were with the militants when fighting erupted.
“But I can assure you that based on intelligence reports they are alive and still being kept on the island,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf seized Dutchman Ewold Horn and Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra in the Tawi-Tawi island group near Jolo in February 2012, while Amer Mamaito Katayama of Japan was abducted on the nearby island of Pangutaran in July 2010.
But the Abu Sayyaf has remained a potent threat on Jolo and its other strongholds, being able to kidnap foreigners and locals, as well as launch deadly attacks against security forces.
The Abu Sayyaf is able to survive partly because it retains support from local Muslim communities in the south, one of the poorest regions of the mainly Catholic country.
A Jordanian journalist held captive by the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo jungles for 18 months escaped in December, while an Australian national seized in 2011 was freed early last year after negotiators said his family paid ransom.