15 dead, 18 injured in Sulu clashes

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ZAMBOANGA CITY: Government troops and Abu Sayyaf militants clashed in Sulu on Wednesday, killing one soldier and 14 rebels.

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Officials said at least 18 soldiers were also wounded in the fighting that erupted near Buhanginan village in Sulu’s Patikul town after militants led by Abu Sayyaf subleader Jihad Susukan and Jamiri Jawhari ambushed soldiers near a Marine base on Tuesday afternoon.

The attack sparked a running gunbattle and military operation continued until early Wednesday with security officials insisting that as many as 14 militants were slain in the fighting, although no cadavers had been recovered in the town.

“At least 14 Abu Sayyaf were killed but we expect it to increase,” said Brig. Gen. Martin Pinto, commander of the Sulu-based 2nd Marine Brigade.

Pinto said that at least 300 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf members, including reinforcements from other areas like Indanan and Talipao, were involved in the heavy firefight in an effort to retake the much bigger camp earlier taken by the soldiers.

Pinto said the rebels were moving from various points but were blocked by government troopers. He said the camp has classroom, bunkers and other facilities and also served as training ground.

Pinto said the fierce fighting has temporarily stopped but they expect the rebels to come back later in the afternoon to launch another attack to retake their camp.

“They really wanted it back. They went back yesterday, we expect them to go back again this afternoon, usually they move on late afternoon,” Pinto further said.

Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the Abu Sayyaf was trying to regain a jungle base in Patikul captured by the Marines on Monday following a massive assault.

Marine Captain Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command, said the operation against the Abu Sayyaf is continuing in the town, a known stronghold of the militant group linked by authorities to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya.

Muyuela said the Monday assault killed a still undetermined number of militants. She said troops have occupied the fortified camp which can accommodate at least 100 people.

WITH REPORT FROM WILLIAM DEPASUPIL

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