Heavy fighting between government forces and fighters with Al-Qaeda-linked group Abu Sayyaf has left at least 15 insurgents and three government troops dead in the southern Philippines, officials said Wednesday.
Regional military spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan said the clashes began early this week as troops advanced toward an Abu Sayyaf camp in Al-Barka township on Basilan Island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
Tan said the fighting intensified Tuesday and sporadic skirmishes were continuing Wednesday. At least seven other fighters and 13 government troops were wounded, with most of the government casualties from Abu Sayyaf snipers, he added. The number of dead Abu Sayyaf members was based on accounts from engaged troops, and the bodies were not recovered because they were dragged away by their comrades, he said.
Troops were advancing slowly because of the snipers and have yet to capture the camp. "If we become careless in our advance, we will have many fatalities," he said, adding that the camp is in a mountainous area and cannot be easily reached by armored vehicles.
Abu Sayyaf is the most notorious separatist group that split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest insurgent group in the south, in the early 1990s. The four-decade conflict in the southern Philippines is one of the world's bloodiest, with a death toll estimated to have surpassed 150,000. Efforts between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to cement a peace deal were restarted in June.
The Philippines and the United States have listed Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for kidnappings, beheadings, extortion and bomb attacks. Abu Sayyaf has been weakened but has survived more than a decade of U.S.-backed offensives.
Abu Sayyaf is suspected of kidnapping two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina from a marina in the south in September. Rebels who identified themselves in an online video as belonging to Abu Sayyaf demanded more than $60 million for the release of the three foreigners.
The group was also allegedly behind the beheading of a Malaysian hostage in Sulu province, where Abu Sayyaf gunmen are believed to be holding other foreign and Filipino hostages.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press