ZAMBOANGA CITY: Dozens of Abu Sayyaf rebels escaped a massive military assault in Basilan province that left two soldiers dead and more than 28 wounded.
Security officials insisted that up to a dozen rebels were slain the fierce fighting in the villages of Ungkaya Pukan and Tipo-Tipo town, but troops had not recovered any single body of Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the areas.
Officials said they learned about the enemy casualties from the villagers themselves and that the military is verifying the reports.
“The reports came from the populace and we are still verifying all these information,” Marine Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command, told The Manila Times on Sunday.
She said the initial report was that five rebels were slain and later on the casualties increased to 12.
“Right now, there are no more operations and troops have returned to barracks,” she said.
The Army said the operation targeted Abu Sayyaf leaders Puruji Indama, Nurhasan Jamiri and Isnilon Hapilon, but there were no reports about them or whether they had been killed or not. Some 200 soldiers had took part in the operation following reports that rebels had been extorting money and harassing laborers working on a government road project near Tipo-Tipo town.
Army Capt. Jefferson Mamauag, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, denied news reports attributed to him by a French news agency that three members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front allegedly fighting alongside the military were also killed.
Mamauag said he was also quoted as saying that seven Abu Sayyaf rebels were slain in the fighting, a report he denied.
“I don’t know why I was quoted, but I never told that news agency or reporters all those reports,” he said.
There was no immediate confirmation from the MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group which recently signed a peace deal with Manila.
The military also tagged the rebels as behind the spate of terrorism and ransom kidnappings in Basilan, one of five provinces under the restive Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and other parts of the southern Philippines.