Philippine troops recovered the bodies of 14 marines, some of them beheaded, after clashing with Muslim insurgents while searching for a kidnapped Italian priest, a marine spokesman said Wednesday.
Nine others were wounded in some of the bloodiest fighting this year. The clash erupted Tuesday in Tipo Tipo town on southern Basilan island, said Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan.
At least 10 bodies were beheaded, Caculitan said, including those of six marines earlier reported missing.
About 50 troops went to Basilan island to check on reports of sightings of the Rev. Giancarlo Bossi, a 57-year-old missionary from Milan who was kidnapped by gunmen on June 10.
The marines were heading back to camp when they were attacked by about 300 suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, Caculitan said.
Rebel group denies role
But Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in peace talks with the government, said his forces fought back after marines attacked an MILF stronghold.
He denied his forces were responsible for the beheadings, saying he would investigate. Four MILF members were killed in the fighting while seven others were wounded, he added.
Iqbal accused government troops of violating a 2003 cease-fire, saying they failed to coordinate their movements into the area with the rebels. He ruled out that Abu Sayyaf militants had sought refuge in the MILF stronghold, but did not explain who might have been responsible for the beheadings.
The gruesome decapitations are a trademark of the Abu Sayyaf, which has beheaded hostages in the past, including an American.
“It cannot be a mistaken encounter because it was a deliberate act on the part of the marines that entered the area, knowing that the area is a bailiwick of the MILF, in complete violation of the cease-fire,” Iqbal said.
Still, he said, the clash was only a “tactical problem” and would not hamper peace talks with the government.
Who kidnapped Italian priest?
Philippine officials have issued conflicting statements on the identity of the groups that might have kidnapped Bossi.
Authorities initially blamed an MILF commander. The group denied any role and deployed forces in the initial weeks after the abduction to help government troops search for Bossi.
National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales has said Abu Sayyaf militants may have been responsible. But army officers say Abu Sayyaf gunmen do not have a presence in the area where Bossi was kidnapped.
Caculitan said he couldn’t confirm reports that Bossi was taken to Basilan.
“We have no visual contact ... so we cannot say he is there or he is not there,” he said.