MANILA » Dozens of Abu Sayyaf militants killed seven marines and wounded 21 others in one of the fiercest clashes this year that erupted in stormy weather Thursday as the marine platoon was about to attack a terrorist jungle camp, the military said.
About 30 marines maneuvered close to the encampment of more than 50 al-Qaida-linked militants in mountainous Patikul township in southern Sulu province, setting off the pre-dawn gunbattle, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said.
It was not immediately clear if there were casualties among the militants, who were led by Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed commander long wanted by U.S. and Philippine authorities for a string of bombings and kidnappings, Cabangbang said.
The marines moved overnight on a mission to capture Sahiron and allied militants belonging to the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. The militants were holed up in one jungle area on Jolo Island, Cabangbang said.
“They were able to the penetrate the camp but the militants were positioned on higher ground, that’s why we had casualties,” Cabangbang said.
Despite the large number of military casualties, the militants withdrew into the woods after several hours of fighting and government forces captured their hide-out.
The dead and wounded marines could not be immediately airlifted from the battle zone due to bad weather, Cabangbang said.
Philippine military offensives backed by U.S. training and intelligence have weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it remains a key security threat.
The group is notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings over the last two decades. It is believed to be holding a number of hostages, including two Americans, a Malaysian, an Indian and a Japanese treasure hunter in Sulu and nearby Basilan islands.