ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, AFP
Sixteen troops and dozens of Muslim extremists were killed Saturday in clashes between government forces and al-Qaida-linked rebels on the southern island of Basilan, the military said.
Nine soldiers were also wounded in the fighting that broke out in the jungle when Marines launched an attack on a rebel camp, said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro.
Bacarro said that the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf suffered about 30 wounded or dead but a military official in Basilan said as many as 42 members of the extremist group had been killed.
An airforce MG-520 helicopter gunship, which was sent to back up the troops, crashed in the waters off Basilan, killing the pilot but the co-pilot was rescued by a navy boat, air force chief Lieutenant General Horacio Tolentino said.
Tolentino said the helicopter crashed after suffering from unexplained vibrations but asserted that “it was not fired upon.”
“It was not hit,” by enemy fire, he said.
Earlier, a military source said the helicopter went down after the pilot was shot by the Abu Sayyaf.
Details of Saturday’s clashes remained sketchy because of a media blackout imposed by the military on Basilan, but sources said the gunbattle on the outskirts of the town of Unkaya Pukan turned into close-quarters combat.
“The enemy suffered a lot of casualties. We are still trying to get the exact number but their casualties are heavy,” regional military spokesman Major Eugene Batara said.
“The offensive is continuing,” he told reporters in Zamboanga City.
He said two Marines and two Abu Sayyaf commanders were confirmed dead but that there would be more casualties on both sides.
“The armed forces will press the fight,” said Bacarro.
The media blackout on Basilan was imposed amid a military build-up in response to the death of 14 Marines in a July 10 ambush. Ten of the Marines were beheaded.
That attack was blamed on the Abu Sayyaf and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a group which is negotiating peace with the government.
The MILF, which signed a cease-fire with Manila three years ago, admits that their forces ambushed the Marines but insists this came after the soldiers intruded into MILF territory. It has denied beheading them.
Bacarro said that “the operation was undertaken in coordination with the local government units and MILF in the area.” He did not elaborate.
However ABS-CBN television reports in Manila said that MILF fighters were reinforcing the Abu Sayyaf in violation of the cease-fire.
Bacarro said that one of the Abu Sayyaf leaders slain in the fighting, Umair Indama, was identified as having taken part in the beheading of the soldiers.
The government has been pouring forces into Basilan for a likely offensive against the extremists since the July 10 ambush.
The Abu Sayyaf has also stepped up operations in other parts of the south. In Jolo island, near Basilan, 26 soldiers were killed in attacks by the Abu Sayyaf and rogue members of another Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) from Aug. 6 to 10.
Troops have also been sent to Jolo but there have been no reports of new clashes there.
More than 12,000 soldiers are in Basilan and Jolo for possible assaults on the Muslim extremists.
The Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the Philippines and been linked by intelligence agencies to the al-Qaida terror network.
The U.S. embassy and Philippine military say U.S. Special Forces troops are providing intelligence and training in the hunt for Abu Sayyaf and other militants on the islands of Basilan and Jolo.