ZAMBOANGA CITY: Abu Sayyaf militants have killed six infantry soldiers, including an officer, in fierce clashes on Sunday in the restive province of Basilan in the Muslim autonomous region in southern Philippines, officials said.
The fighting, according to the officials, erupted in the village of Libug in Sumisip town, a known Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the province. The soldiers were patrolling the village when they engaged about 20 militants, sparking a running gunbattle that killed the soldiers belonging to the 64th Infantry Battalion.
Marine Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, said the slain soldiers were guarding a road project in the town. “They were part of team securing a development project there,” she added.
Mayuela said the intense fighting lasted some 45 minutes.
“Six soldiers, including a young second lieutenant, were proclaimed dead after 45 minutes of heavy exchange of fire,” she added.
But television reports quoted Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc as saying two officers were killed in the fighting, although their names were not made public until their families have been informed about the deaths.
Col. Rolando Bautista, commander of the 104th Infantry Brigade, has sent reinforcement to pursue the militants headed by Radzmi Jannatul.
“I will press criminal charges against these bandits who are harassing security forces protecting the workers of the 64-kilometer, Saudi [Fund for Development]-assisted road project,” he said.
Bautista was referring to the 135-kilometer Basilan Circumferential Road project launched by the Department of Public Works and Highways during the time of President Fidel Ramos in the 1990s that has not been finished. The military also helped construct the road project, which was financed through a concessional facility extended by Saudi Arabia.
The loan of 75 million Saudi riyals was extended in October 2005 to revive the project after being stalled for many years while the Philippine government provided a counterpart fund of P1.118 billion.
The circumferential road project is seen as a major infrastructure initiative to lift Basilan from poverty and bring prosperity to the province as part of the government’s campaign against local terrorism and lawlessness in the area, state media said.