54 killed in day-long firefight in Basilan - AFP
More than 400 Marines, Army and police commandos Wednesday stormed the hilltop camps in Unkaya Pukan town in Basilan Island, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, on Wednesday in raids targeting about 150 Abu Sayyaf militants, said navy chief Vice Adm. Ferdinand Golez.
He said the rebels were led by two terror suspects wanted for a series of bomb attacks and kidnappings.
Heavy fighting ensued when a unit of Marine reinforcements met up with a large group of fleeing militants, leaving them outnumbered with 18 Marines killed, Golez said.
Officials said fighting started about 3 a.m. Wednesday and ended later in the evening.
"It was a slugfest," Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, chief of the military's Western Mindanao Command, told The Associated Press by telephone.
"It was really close-quarter fighting so we couldn't use our artillery," he said, adding troops were still pursuing small pockets of fleeing gunmen Thursday.
A total of 23 troops died and 18 were wounded, four of them in serious condition, Golez said.
The militants, who Golez said possibly included members of the main Muslim separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), suffered 31 dead. Troops did not recover all the bodies because the militants dragged away some, he said.
Lt. Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos, Army spokesman, identified three of the military fatalities as 1st Lt. Chester Barela, 1st Lt. Dhel Jhun C. Evangelista and Cpl. Renato Dindin.
“The Philippine Army condoles with the families and loved ones of the 23 government troopers who offered their lives in line of duty for the country," he said.
“The Army will stay more focused in its operations against threats to national stability and development. With this large number of fatalities and casualties, the Army is even more determined to put a stop to the senseless violence the local terrorist groups and bandits have been continuously undertaking," he added.
The Army spokesman said the members of the Abu Sayyaf that the soldiers fought with are headed by Basilan commander Furuji Indama.
Troops found several bombs, booby traps and 15 assault rifles and grenade launchers in the camps, said Rear Adm. Alex Pama, a navy commander in western Mindanao. The bombs may have been intended for another wave of terror attacks, he said.
Military authorities have said that IEDs are commonly used in bombing activities in southern Philippines, usually by the Abu Sayyaf or a faction of the MILF.
Officials also said that explosives training are sometimes being undertaken, with operatives of the Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida's branch in Southeast Asia, doing the supervision.
Terrorist training camp
Dolorfino said the town of Ungkaya Pukan is an "important base of operations" for the Abu Sayyaf, adding that the place is home to bandit sympathizers.
The Abu Sayyaf is on a US list of terrorist organizations and is suspected of having received funds and training from al-Qaida.
"Malapit dito ang sources nila (Abu Sayyaf) ng logistic support na galing sa sympathtic civilians (The place is near their source of logistic support from sympathetic civilians)," Dolorfino said.
He also noted that government troops were careful not to get the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) involved in the armed conflict. The clash happened near an MILF camp.
"Nagkakaroon ng panganib na ma-involve ang MILF. Lalo na ngayon na may suspension tayo of military operations (There is the danger of the MILF being thrown into the picture. But we are being careful especially in light of the suspension of military operations)," Dolorfino said in an interview on Balitanghali.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu, however, said 10 of the dead rebels were the group's members and accused the military of attacking them. He said they were not with the Abu Sayyaf and only happened to be in the area when the fighting erupted.
Unlike the Abu Sayyaf, which is considered a terrorist organization, the larger Moro rebel group has been negotiating with the government an autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the southern Philippines. Sporadic clashes have erupted in recent months.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered last July 23 a halt to military operations against the MILF to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks between the two parties. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had said it will only take up arms against rebel forces when government troops are attacked.
Nonetheless, Dolorfino allayed fears expressed by civilians that the fighting might spill over to residential settlements nearby. He said residents in affected villages were not in danger of being caught in the crossfire since the military assault was particularly "directed" at bandits.
"Sana mawala nang pangamba sa kanila (The public should quell their fears). What happened yesterday was a legal military operation," Dolorfino said.
"Hindi kami gumamit ng malalaking calibre ng armas, kanyon, at bomba. Very precise ang operations at directed solely sa Abu Sayyaf (We did not use high-caliber weapons, nor did we use cannons or bombs. Our operations were very price and directed solely at the Abu Sayyaf)," he said.
The daylong clashes Wednesday led to the biggest single-day military losses in recent years, Dolorfino said. In August 2007, fighting on Basilan killed 25 soldiers and 27 militants, a month after 10 Marines were beheaded in an ambush.
The latest offensive targeted Abu Sayyaf chieftains Khair Mundus and Furuji Indama, said Rear Admiral Pama.
It was not clear if they were among the dead but a brother of Indama, also an Abu Sayyaf commander, was killed, Dolorfino said.
US and Philippine security officials have especially wanted to capture Mundus, a hard-line militant who was arrested several years ago but escaped. He is suspected of having connections to Middle East financiers who could provide funds to his group, according to police intelligence officials.
Indama, a young ruthless militant, is suspected of orchestrating the marine beheadings. The atrocity shocked the nation and an angry President Arroyo then ordered the military to crush the militants.
Since 2002, hundreds of US troops have been training Filipino soldiers and providing them with intelligence. They are also securing development projects like schools and medical clinics in an effort to convince the local Muslim population in the country's poorest provinces to turn their back on the militants.
US Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command, expressed sympathies to the families of slain Philippine troops during a previously scheduled visit to Manila on Thursday.
"We have reinforced our commitment to sustain this effort in this very important endeavor," he told reporters after meeting Philippine officials.
Although weakened by yearslong US-backed offensives, about 400 Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Basilan and nearby Jolo Island and the Zamboanga peninsula have recently turned to ransom kidnappings to raise funds for terror attacks, officials said.
The militants held three international Red Cross workers on Jolo for several months this year, as well as a dozen Filipino hostages. All have been released or rescued. - Mark Merueňas, GMANews.TV with an AP report