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Death toll rises in Abu Sayyaf, Philippine marines clash

Military says 25, not 14 Muslim fighters killed after launching a surprise attack to recapture base in Sulu province

The death toll from clashes between Philippine troops and Muslim militants who launched a surprise attack to regain control of a jungle training camp in a southern province has risen to 26, officials said Thursday.

Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, the regional military spokeswoman, said the latest field reports showed 25 Abu Sayyaf militants have been killed and 24 wounded. One Philippine marine had died and 19 were wounded.

No fresh fighting was reported Thursday but the death toll rose from 15 because some of the wounded militants died, Muyuela said. Twenty of the dead Abu Sayyaf fighters were identified based on information from local residents. 

Heavy exchanges of rifle grenade and mortar fire erupted late Tuesday in a mountain area off southern Sulu province's Patikul town then eased into sporadic exchanges of sniper shots past midnight, with reinforcement marines beating back about 100 Abu Sayyaf attackers, military officials said.

At least 14 militants were killed and several others were wounded in the three-hour fight, marine spokesman Capt. Ryan Lacuesta said Wednesday, citing intelligence reports. One marine was killed and 19 others were wounded, eight of them seriously, he said.

"They tried to overwhelm our marines to regain their camp but we have back-up forces nearby and close air support," Lacuesta said. "They resorted to mortar and M203 rifle grenade fire so our wounded mostly were hit by shrapnel."

Government soldiers had captured the well-fortified militant camp, concealed by shrubs and trees in the mountains, on Monday. The well-fortified Abu Sayyaf encampment, concealed by shrubs and trees in the jungle, had about 50 huts and could accommodate about 100 people. The militants had used the camp to train recruits, for meetings and as a staging area for attacks and kidnappings, marine commander Brig. Gen. Martin Pinto said.

Lacuesta said at least three Abu Sayyaf factions had combined to stage the attack on Tuesday, but reinforcement marines, backed up by helicopter gunships and artillery fire, overwhelmed the militants, who withdrew in different directions, some dragging their dead and wounded.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said they expect militants, including those under local Abu Sayyaf commander Radullan Sahiron, to launch retaliatory attacks.

Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, has had links with foreign terrorist networks, including Al-Qaeda. It is notorious for bombings, extortion, kidnappings and beheadings, and has targeted foreign missionaries and tourists in the south.

In March, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the nation’s largest Muslim rebel group, signed a peace agreement that ended decades of fighting on the southern island of Mindanao.

The Associated Press

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