At least 23 soldiers and 20 members of the Islamic extremist Abu Sayyaf group were killed in fierce fighting in the southern Philippines after a raid on a training camp run by the al Qa'eda-linked organisation, the military said today. Fourteen other soldiers were also wounded after the military launched a major offensive on the camp in the town of Ungkaya Pukan on the remote island of Basilan on Wednesday, officials said.
The facility was overrun, but reports from the field said day-long clashes that followed were fierce and led to the heavy casualties, regional commander Major Gen Benjamin Dolorfino said. Numerous home-made bombs, ready for detonation, were recovered along with 13 high-powered firearms, he said. The fighting was the heaviest since at least 29 soldiers were killed in two separate clashes with the Abu Sayyaf in July and August 2007 - with the bodies of 10 soldiers later being found mutilated.
The military "launched a decisive law enforcement operation targeting the Abu Sayyaf's main training camp in the province", the army spokeswoman Lt Steffani Cacho said. "Recovered from the camp were sizeable quantities of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) rigged to explode while others were ready for use," she said. Soldiers who airlifted their fallen colleagues to a military base in nearby Zamboanga City said those who died were hit by sniper fire.
Fighting has ceased, Major Gen Dolorfino said, but troops were still clearing the area to ensure no insurgents remained. Troops were also pursuing other Abu Sayyaf members, he added. *AFP