Fighting in Basilan leaves 7 rebels, soldiers dead

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ZAMBOANGA CITY: At least 7 Abu Sayyaf rebels and soldiers were killed in sporadic clashes in the Muslim province of Basilan where security forces are trying to flush out members of the al-Qaeda-linked group tagged in the spate of terrorism and ransom kidnappings in the southern Philippines, officials announced early Saturday.

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Marine Captain Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Command, said at least five from the Abu Sayyaf and two from the military side were confirmed dead.

Muyuela has identified two of the slain rebels Assi Kalitot and Basri Musa, who were both followers of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.

She said 28 soldiers were also wounded in the clashes that began before dawn on April 11 in Ungkaya Pukan and spread to the neighboring town of Tipo-Tipo. She said military forces are pursuing Hapilon and the group of Puruji Indama and Nurhassan Jamiri, three of the most notorious leaders of the Abu Sayyaf.

“The government forces suffered twenty eight wounded and two killed in action. Most of the wounded suffered minor injuries caused by shrapnel and were evacuated at Camp Navarro General Hospital and are now being given medical attention. The Command is also contacting relatives of our personnel who were killed in action,” Muyuela said.

“The operation was directed towards the neutralization of the said Abu Sayyaf Group which is responsible in a number of kidnapping and extortion activities, including the Sabrina Ikbala Voon kidnap case, and the P5 million being demanded by the Abu Sayyaf from the contractor of the ongoing Magkawa to Al-Barka road project,” she added.

The 22-year old Voon was kidnapped in Zamboanga City on February 19 after gunmen disguised as policemen barged in her house in the village of Mercedes and seized her. The kidnappers have reportedly demanded P5 million from her family in exchange for the woman’s safe release.

Army Captain Jefferson Mamauag, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, said troops clashed with about 60 Abu Sayyaf rebels. He said Major General Felicito Virgilio Trinidad, the division commander, ordered security forces to intensify the operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

He said two battalions of soldiers were involved in the fighting. “More troops and closed air support have been dispatched to Basilan to pursue the Abu Sayyaf and to pave the way for the normalization of the area,” Mamauag said.

Basilan, one of five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region, is a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group which recently signed a peace deal with Manila. AL JACINTO

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