MANILA: Four members of the elite Philippine Marines and two suspected Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists were slain in a day-long encounter on the island province of the Sulu in strife-torn Mindanao, according to the military.
Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang, the regional military spokesman, said 22 other soldiers were wounded and whose rescue by helicopters was delayed due to stormy weather.
Cabangbang added the clash occurred on Sunday following reports that the militants were holding several hostages in the jungles of the town of Patikul in Sulu, a known hotbed of the Abu Sayyaf.
He added that although government forces were outnumbered they fought back the estimated 200 militants who were reinforced by members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The MNLF confirmed on Monday the involvement of its armed followers in the clash but claimed government forces “provoked” them into joining the day-long running gunbattle to protect their homes and farms.
“The troops conducted a combat patrol to verify the reported presence of the kidnap victims in the area when they caught up with the Abu Sayyaf resulting in an encounter,” Cabangbang said.
Among the foreign hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, the military said, were two European birdwatchers kidnapped in February and a retired Australian soldier married to a Filipina abducted in December.
Since 2001, the Abu Sayyaf (“bearer of the sword”) has been blamed for a series of kidnap-for-ransom cases involving foreigners and Filipinos, marred by the beheading of some of their hostages.
Regional and Filipino security experts have confirmed the link of the Abu Sayyaf to the global Al Qaeda terrorist network through the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah militants.
As a result, the US and some European countries have included the Abu Sayyaf in their list of “foreign-based terror groups” along with the New People’s Army, the armed component of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which has been waging a Maoist-style insurgency against the government for 42 years.