Manila: Abu Sayyaf militants killed seven Philippine marines and wounded 21 others who were about to raid their jungle camp on Thursday in some of the fiercest fighting this year between the military and the al Qaeda-linked rebels.
About 30 marines manoeuvred in stormy weather close to the encampment of more than 50 militants in mountainous Patikul township in southern Sulu province, setting off the pre-dawn gunbattle, regional military spokesman Lt Col Randolph Cabangbang said.
It was not immediately clear if there were casualties among the militants, who were led by Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed commander long wanted by US and Philippine authorities for a string of bombings and kidnappings, Cabangbang said.
The marines moved overnight on a mission to capture Sahiron, Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon and allied militants belonging to the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. The militants were holed up in one jungle area on Jolo Island, Cabangbang said.
Washington has offered USD 1 million for the capture or killing of Sahiron and USD 5 million each for Hapilon and Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a US-trained Malaysian engineer. He has been hiding in Sulu and is one of the highest Jemaah Islamiyah leaders still at large in the region.
"They were able to penetrate the camp but the militants were positioned on higher ground, that`s why we had casualties," Cabangbang said.
Despite the large number of military casualties, the militants withdrew into the woods after five hours of fighting and government forces captured their hide-out.
The fall of the major Abu Sayyaf stronghold, which is still being searched by troops, was a key victory that came with a steep price, the military said.
"Nothing is free," military spokesman Commodore Miguel Jose Rodriguez said, adding that the marines clashed with veteran jungle-based fighters, who were being pursued by reinforcement troops.
The dead and wounded marines could not be immediately airlifted from the battle zone due to bad weather, Cabangbang said.
Philippine military offensives backed by US training and intelligence have weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organisation, but it remains a key security threat.
The group is notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings over the last two decades. It is believed to be holding a number of hostages, including two Americans, a Malaysian, an Indian and a Japanese treasure hunter in Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province 610 miles (980 kilometres) south of Manila, and nearby Basilan islands.