Philippine security forces killed at least 15 Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in an attempt yesterday to rescue foreign captives on a remote southern island, an army general said as Manila redoubled an offensive against Muslim rebels.
There was no immediate word on the fate of 10 foreign and Filipino hostages, including two Malaysians and a Dutch national, believed to be in the custody of Abu Sayyaf militants on Jolo island.
Brigadier-general Alan Arrojado, commander of military units on Jolo island, said they fired several howitzer rounds as US-trained army commandos battled about 100 Abu Sayyaf militants near another rebel stronghold in the town of Indanan.
“We killed 15 rebels and wounded an undetermined number as they withdrew deep into the jungles,” Arrojado told journalists by phone from his base. “We are pursuing them, we have sent in more reinforcements.” No army casualties were reported.
The small but violent Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for bomb attacks in the south, kidnappings-for-ransom and beheading of captives, including an American citizen in 2001. The rebels are led by Yasser Igasan, seen as having close links to Al Qaeda.
Philippine armed forces launched an assault on Abu Sayyaf after Manila ordered an all-out offensive to prevent possible copycat attacks after a bombing at a shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok on Monday that killed at least 20 people.
“I have directed our forces to be extra vigilant and conduct measures to prevent similar incidents occurring in our country,” said general Hernando Iriberri, the Philippines military chief, raising security alert nationwide at the highest level.
Iriberri ordered pre-emptive strikes to disrupt what he called plans by Islamist militants to carry out bombings in important urban centres on Mindanao, a major southern island in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation of 100 million people.
Since 2002, a small US military contingent has been training and advising Philippine forces in fighting Abu Sayyaf and two other militant factions — the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and a small group claiming affiliation with the ultra-radical Islamic State movement.
Two policemen and a soldier were killed in clash between two groups of law enforcers in a public market in a southern Philippine city, a police officer said yesterday.
A street vendor was also injured in the fighting that occurred late Tuesday in Labuan village public market in Zamboanga City, about 850km south of Manila, according to police Senior Inspector Raymond Sanson.
Sanson, a police station chief, said that based on initial reports some of his men along with soldiers were conducting a patrol when they encountered the two police officers who were not in proper uniforms, triggering an argument that led to the firefight.
Sanson said investigators were still determining who fired the first shot that triggered the shootout.
The village of Labuan is one of the crime-prone areas in Zamboanga City, where suspected Islamist militants and crime syndicates hide and operate.
Five communist guerrillas have been killed in a clash with special forces troops in the Philippines, a military spokesman said yesterday.
The clash broke out Tuesday near the town of Pangantucan on the main southern island of Mindanao, one of several areas where the decades-old New People’s Army (NPA) rebellion is still active.
“It was really an ambush but our special forces returned fire,” said local military spokesman Captain Alberto Caber, describing the rebel band as about 60-strong.
“There were reports of the NPA (in the area) so our special forces went there to verify,” he told reporters.
The bodies of five guerrillas were recovered after the clash, he added.
The 4,000-strong NPA has for 46 years waged a guerrilla campaign which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, largely in rural areas mired in poverty.
Peace negotiations have stalled under president Benigno Aquino as the government has refused to grant the rebels’ demand to free a number of their captured leaders, who face criminal charges.
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