The Philippine army has seized a well-developed Abu Sayyaf rebel base, a senior military official said on Sunday, in a bloody retaliatory offensive spurred by the beheading of soldiers last month.
At least 35 soldiers and militants were killed in the raid, which started at dawn on Saturday and raged until the early afternoon on the remote southern island of Basilan.
Marine spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ariel Caculitan said the military had seized the rebel base, which had several underground bunkers and tunnels and well-developed trenches. Weapons were also found, he said.
The bodies of 20 militants had been recovered, Caculitan said, but the military was verifying reports up to 40 were killed in the attack. Fifteen soldiers were killed and seven were wounded.
The raid, in which soldiers pounded the camp with howitzer and mortar shells, was the first offensive on Basilan since 14 marines were killed and 10 were decapitated in an ambush on July 10.
Manila has blamed the Abu Sayyaf, which has links to regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah, and renegade members of the more mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for the mutilations.
Thousands hunt for killers
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo deployed thousands of troops to hunt the killers but the government had been anxious not to launch an all-out attack for fear of pulling the MILF, which has camps on the island, into the fighting.
The Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group has admitted ambushing the marines in July for entering their territory unannounced but has denied decapitating the men.
The military said they coordinated Saturday’s offensive with the MILF.
The largely Catholic central government wants to seal a peace deal with the MILF to end a decades-old conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development in one of the most resource-rich areas of the indebted country.
Talks between the government and the MILF have been stalled for nearly a year over the size and wealth of a proposed ancestral homeland for Muslims but negotiations are set to resume next week in Malaysia.