Philippines / AFP
A Philippine offensive against the extremist Abu Sayyaf group after a spate of kidnappings has left 18 soldiers and five fighters dead in the worst violence in the troubled south this year, authorities said on Sunday.
Saturday’s clashes on the strife-torn island of Basilan came after an April 8 ransom deadline set by Abu Sayyaf, who had threatened to behead some of their foreign hostages.
At least four soldiers were beheaded in the fighting, which involved about a hundred Abu Sayyaf rebels, regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said.
Military chief General Hernando Iriberri, who flew to the southern command base in Zamboanga city, 44 kilometres (27 miles) from the violence, said the fighting lasted almost 10 hours.
“The whole armed forces is grieving,” he told reporters.
He said a Moroccan national who was with the gunmen was killed in the clashes, identifying him as Mohammad Khattab, an instructor in making improvised explosive devices as well as an “extremist preacher”.
“He wanted to unify, organise all kidnap-for-ransom groups to be affiliated with an international terrorist organisation,” the general said.
He would not identify the international group the Moroccan was allegedly working for.
Iriberri said operations were continuing, adding that “even as we speak, there is an encounter going on in the same place”.
Military spokesman Colonel Noel Detoyato told GMA television in Manila that “our standing order… is no let-up in our combat operations so we expect in the next few days, there will be many more encounters”.
The military spokesman for the unit involved in the battle said the soldiers were on their way to attack an Abu Sayyaf hideout when they were hit.
“Our group was heading to attack them. On the way, they were ambushed,” Colonel Benedict Manquiquis told radio station DZRH.
“The enemy had the high ground so no matter where our soldiers fled to seek cover, they could still be hit by the heavy firepower and improvised explosive devices of the members of the Abu Sayyaf group.”
Major Tan said that 53 soldiers and about 20 Abu Sayyaf had also been wounded in the violence.