updated 9/28/2004 5:38:01 PM ET 2004-09-28T21:38:01

U.S.-backed forces have launched a major assault to capture or kill Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by Washington, sparking clashes that killed a Philippine marine and an undetermined number of rebels, officials said Tuesday.

The assaults began Friday in the mountain jungles of Patikul on southern Jolo island. They were aimed at Radulan Sahiron, his son Ismin and other Abu Sayyaf commanders who reportedly had planned to meet there, apparently to plot another terror strike, military sources said.

Army Brig. Gen. Agustin Dimaala confirmed the assaults against Sahiron’s group, about 580 miles south of Manila.

One marine was killed and six were injured, two while defusing a homemade bomb, officials said.

There was no indication whether Sahiron or his son, who are believed to have about 40 armed followers, died in the running gunbattles, officials said.

“We’re optimistic,” Dimaala told The Associated Press by telephone. “The operations are continuing, and the troops are still in the mountain.”

U.S. forces helped train and equip Filipino troops involved in the assaults but were not involved in actual combat, Dimaala said.

Filipino troops used night-vision goggles provided by the United States to locate and engage the rebels late Monday.

American support indicates Washington’s desire to help the Philippines crush remnants of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf in the southern Mindanao region despite President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s decision to withdraw peacekeepers from Iraq to save a kidnapped Filipino.

Terrorist training camps in Mindanao?
U.S. officials have expressed concern about the reported presence of secret terrorist training camps in Mindanao maintained by Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asia al-Qaida ally blamed for deadly bombings and plots in the region.

Sahiron, a one-armed Abu Sayyaf commander based in Patikul, and his son, who also has lost an arm, are on a U.S. list of wanted terrorists. Philippine authorities have linked them to several kidnappings, including the April 2000 abduction of 21 Western tourists and Asian workers from Malaysia.

The hostages were freed after a ransom was paid.

U.S.-backed assaults crippled and displaced Abu Sayyaf’s main faction on southern Basilan island two years ago. Surviving commanders and other guerrillas fled to nearby Jolo and other regions.

Although now down to about 400 guerrillas from a peak strength of more than 1,000 men in early 2000, the Abu Sayyaf is still capable of bombings and other terror attacks, the military says.

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