ZAMBOANGA: The death toll in fighting between Muslim rebels and soldiers in the southern Philippines has risen to 12, officials in the area said yesterday after the shoot-out had ended.
Government forces launched the operation on Friday to capture two top leaders of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group blamed for beheadings and kidnappings, but failed to apprehend either man.
“Puruji Indama and Isnilon Hapilon are on the run,” Brigadier-General Carlito Galvez, the military commander for Basilan island, told reporters.
Galvez said the last firefight between about 80 gunmen and soldiers ceased on Basilan, around 900 kilometres south of the Philippine capital Manila, on Friday night, but the operation was ongoing.
A local Philippine army spokesman, said seven Abu Sayyaf fighters had been killed, with authorities now searching for their burial sites.
Two soldiers were shot dead and 28 wounded by grenade blasts, Mamauag added, correcting an earlier military report that put their casualties at two dead and 29 wounded.
And he said three members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main Muslim guerrilla force in the region, were also killed on Friday. The MILF militants were fighting alongside Philippine troops, according to an official from the town where most of the fighting occurred.
Indama, Abu Sayyaf’s chief, has a bounty of 3.3 million pesos ($74,500) on his head and has been blamed for holding foreigners for ransom in the south over the years.
Hapilon is under a $5m bounty set by the US government, which accuses him of kidnapping a group of holidaymakers including three Americans on the western island of Palawan in May 2001.