ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: The death toll in fighting between Muslim rebels and soldiers in the southern Philippines has risen to 12, officials in the area said Saturday after the prolonged shootout had ended.
Government forces launched the operation 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 (560 miles) south of the Philippine capital Manila on Friday night, but the operation was ongoing.
Captain Jefferson Mamauag, 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 others were 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 Friday, their bodies as yet unrecovered.
The MILF militants were fighting alongside Philippine troops, according to Alton Angeles, municipal planning officer of the town where most of the fighting occurred, under their top Basilan leader, Hamza Sapanton.
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. He is notorious for beheading and mutilating victims.
Hapilon is under a $5 million 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.
Two were killed in captivity, one of them beheaded, while a third, the wife of one of the men murdered, was rescued by Philippine forces 13 months later.
Abu Sayyaf is a self-styled Islamic militant group which was set up in the 1990s with seed money from the late Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, and has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the country's history including bombings.
MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar said the rebel leadership had yet to receive any report of MILF casualties.
"It's possible people got killed because there was a firefight," Jaafar told AFP by telephone.
He said the MILF has a long-standing arrangement with the government to help government forces pursue kidnappers.
This was part of confidence-building measures that led to a peace treaty last month that would see the MILF end more than 40 years of fighting and take the reins of power in a planned autonomous region.
The military said its operation was unrelated to the search for a Chinese tourist and a Filipina worker kidnapped allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf at a Malaysian dive resort on April 2. (AFP)