ZAMBOANGA CITY: More than a hundred soldiers and rebels, including a Moroccan jihadist, were killed and wounded in fierce clashes between military forces and Abu Sayyaf in Basilan province in the troubled Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, army intelligence reports said.
Four soldiers were also decapitated by rebels, but the Abu Sayyaf suffered more than two dozen casualties that included Mohammad Kattab, a Moroccan bomb expert; and Ubaida Hapilon, son of rebel leader Isnilon Hapilon. Another Abu Sayyaf leader, Radzmil Jannatul, was also slain in the fighting that broke out in Tipo-Tipo town.
Over three dozen soldiers were also killed, including a young lieutenant, and more than 60 others wounded in the battle that started on Saturday and continued the next day.
Fighting first erupted in Al-Barka town and then spread to Tipo-Tipo and other areas in the war-torn province, which is a major stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance with the Islamic State militant group.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and military chief Hernando Iriberri also flew to Zamboanga City to inspect the wounded soldiers.
Fighting was also reported in Sulu province, where the Abu Sayyaf is holding more than a dozen foreign hostages kidnapped in Mindanao and Sabah, in Malaysia.
On Saturday, two aging OV-10 bombers were also seen taking off from an air force base in Zamboanga and headed to Basilan.
The province is also a known lair of the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed an interim peace deal with Manila in 2014. It was not immediately known whether the MILF was involved in the fighting.
Both Al-Barka and Tipo-Tipo towns were also the scenes of previous clashes between troops and Abu Sayyaf rebels where the army killed two Malaysian militants.
The impoverished Basilan is where the Abu Sayyaf was founded by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the 1990s and the province remains underdeveloped, with widespread kidnappings and terrorism. AL JACINTO