17 killed in military clash with Abu Sayyaf

Posted on June 20, 2014

ZAMBOANGA -- Ten Muslim extremists and seven soldiers were killed yesterday in one of the bloodiest clashes in the southern Philippines in recent months, the military said.

Doldiers were approaching a known hotbed of the militant Abu Sayyaf group on the strife-torn island of Jolo when the fighting broke out, military statements said.

The Abu Sayyaf initially fired on the soldiers, killing an officer. Ten minutes later, six more soldiers were killed and many others wounded when the Abu Sayyaf fired mortar shells at them, the statement added.

The fighting left 10 Abu Sayyaf fighters dead, although only one body was recovered, and 24 soldiers wounded, the military said.

“The remaining troops are still in the area of operations while the casualties were evacuated,” the statement said.

The attack comes after the Abu Sayyaf suffered a series of setbacks including the capture in Manila last week of one of its leaders, Khair Mundos, who is on the US government’s list of “most wanted” terror suspects.

Days later, two of his followers were also arrested.

The military would not say why the troops were in the rural town of Patikul, a known Abu Sayyaf hotbed, about 945 kilometers south of Manila.

The US military has had about 500 troops rotating through the southern Philippines since 2002 to train Filipino soldiers how to combat the militants. Many Abu Sayyaf leaders have been captured or killed, but it continues to pose a threat in the South, kidnapping people and carrying out bomb attacks.

The militants are able to draw support from local Muslim communities who feel they have been persecuted for centuries by Christian rulers in Manila.

They also get money for weapons from their successful kidnap-for-ransom ventures.

The group, founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, is blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines’ recent history.

This includes the 2004 bombing of a ferry that left more than 100 dead.

Several hostages are still believed to be held by the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Jolo.

Last Tuesday, Philippine police officials said they had arrested two Abu Sayyaf members involved in the high-profile kidnapping of an Australian and two Americans, just days after one of their leaders was captured.

The two were caught in a raid on Monday at a fishing village about 30 minutes’ drive from Zamboanga on Mindanao island, one of the biggest cities in the southern Philippines, local police said.

Jimmy Nurilla and Bakrin Haris are members of an Abu Sayyaf cell that has kidnapped foreigners and locals in recent years, Major Ariel Huesca, head of Zamboanga’s anti-terror unit, told reporters.

He said they were involved in the kidnapping of Australian Warren Rodwell, who was released in March last year after 15 months’ captivity in the remote jungles and farmlands of the South that are the Abu Sayyaf’s strongholds.

The militants had initially demanded $2 million for Mr. Rodwell’s release, but are believed to have settled for far less.

Mr. Huesca said the captured men were also involved in the kidnapping of American Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann and her then 14-year-old son, Kevin, from a resort island close to Zamboanga in 2011.

They were released after several months but it was unclear if a ransom was paid.

Mr. Huesca said Monday’s police and military raid was initially aimed at capturing the two men’s direct leader, who was in charge of the kidnap gang. But he evaded arrest.

Mr. Huesca said the kidnap-for-ransom cell was under the overall responsibility of Khair Mundos, one of the Abu Sayyaf’s top leaders, who was arrested in Manila on Wednesday last week.

Mundos had a $500,000 US government bounty on his head. He was regarded as one of the key financiers of the Abu Sayyaf with direct links to Islamic militant groups overseas like the al Qaeda, and had led other kidnapping incidents.

Mr. Huesca and other police who briefed reporters on the latest arrests did not say if Mundos had provided the intelligence for Monday’s raid. -- AFP