Philippine troops suffered some of their worst losses in an offensive against al-Qaida-linked militants on a southern island in which at least 23 soldiers and 20 guerrillas were killed, officials said Thursday.
Troops continued to scour the battlefield following clashes Wednesday with Abu Sayyaf militants in two of their jungle camps on Basilan Island, and the tally of slain guerrillas could rise, said regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
"It was a slugfest," Dolorfino told The Associated Press by telephone. "It was really close-quarter fighting so we couldn't use our artillery," he said, adding troops were pursuing small pockets of fleeing gunmen.
Although weakened by yearslong U.S.-backed offensives, about 400 Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Basilan and nearby Jolo Island and the Zamboanga peninsula have recently turned to ransom kidnappings to raise funds for terror attacks, officials said.
The militants held three international Red Cross workers on Jolo for several months this year, as well as a dozen Filipino hostages. All have been released or rescued.
More than 400 marines, army and police commandos launched simultaneous pre-dawn attacks Wednesday on two Abu Sayyaf encampments in hilly Silangkum and Baguindam villages.
The daylong clashes killed 20 marines and three army members, including two officers, in one of the biggest single-day military battle losses in recent years, Dolorfino said. Troops also found the bodies of 20 militants in Baguindam, Dolorfino said. Sixteen troops and police were wounded.
The offensive targeted about 60 militants in the two hilltop strongholds led by Abu Sayyaf chieftains Khair Mundus and Furuji Indama, said Rear Adm. Alex Pama. It was not clear if they were among the dead but a brother of Indanan, an Abu Sayyaf commander, was killed, Dolorfino said.
The military has blamed Mundus and Indama for a series of deadly bomb attacks and kidnappings.
U.S. and Philippine security officials have particularly wanted to capture Mundus, a hard-line militant who was arrested several years ago but escaped. He is suspected of having connections to Middle East financiers who could provide funds to his group, according to police intelligence officials.
Indanan, a young ruthless militant, is suspected of orchestrating the beheadings of 10 marines during a 2007 clash. The atrocity shocked the nation and an angry President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then ordered the military to crush the militants.
The two seized camps served as a stronghold and a bomb factory for the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan, about 550 miles south of Manila, Dolorfino said.
Troops found several bombs, booby traps and 15 assault rifles and grenade launchers in the camps, Pama said.
"The bombs were already primed to explode," he said. They may have been intended for another wave of terror attacks.
The Abu Sayyaf is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations because its bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages made it into the Philippines' most brutal rebel group.
It is suspected of having received funds and training from al-Qaida.
Since 2002, hundreds of U.S. troops have been training Filipino soldiers and providing them with intelligence. They are also securing development projects like schools and medical clinics in an effort to convince the local Muslim population in the country's poorest provinces to turn their back on the militants.
Abu Sayyaf, which means "Father of the Swordsman" in Arabic, was founded in 1991 in Basilan with support from Asian and Middle Eastern radical groups. It gained notoriety in 2001 when gunmen kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, from a Philippine resort. One American was beheaded and another killed in a military rescue.
The Abu Sayyaf also is believed to be sheltering members of the Indonesian-based group Jemaah Islamiyah, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin. The two are suspected of masterminding the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in 2002, then fleeing to the southern Philippines to evade a crackdown in Indonesia.