Attempts by government troops to arrest three militant leaders wanted by the Philippines and the US on kidnapping and murder charges sparked clashes that left up to 17 rebels dead.
Fighting erupted yesterday when government forces cordoned off a village on Jolo island in the southern Philippines and tried to arrest the three Abu Sayyaf commanders. Some of the estimated 220 militants in the village fired on the soldiers and clashes ensued.
Regional military commander Major General Benjamin Dolorfino said troops recovered the body of one militant, but that intelligence sources indicated at least 17 rebels were killed. Five government soldiers were wounded, he added.
Hostilities broke out as residents of the predominantly Muslim island celebrated the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Fitr. Troops were trying to arrest rebel commanders Isnilon Hapilon, Albader Parad and Umbra Jumdail, also known as Dr Abu.
Washington has offered a five million dollar reward for Hapilon, who has been indicted in the US for alleged involvement in terrorist acts against Americans and others in the Philippines, as well as lesser rewards for the capture of the other two commanders.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 fighters, has been blamed for numerous bombings, beheadings and kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners. It is believed to have received funds from al Qaida and is on a US list of terrorist organisations.
Intelligence reports showed that 40 men under Hapilon arrived on Jolo on Saturday from nearby Basilan island, he added.
A spokesman said the prevalence of militants at the village suggests they "were probably guarding high-value targets".
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be sheltering Jemaah Islamiyah militants, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin who are suspected of helping mastermind the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.Reuse content