Philippines says kills 15 al Qaeda-linked militants
MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - Fifteen al Qaeda-linked militants, including 3 leaders, were killed on Thursday in an air strike on a rebel camp in the southern Philippines, officials said, hailing the strike as a victory in the fight against terrorism.
Among those killed in the attack on Sulu island were at least two members of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a Southeast Asian group behind a bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2005 in which 202 people were killed, many of them foreign tourists.
"We commend the AFP with this victory in the continuing fight against terrorism," presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in a message to reporters, referring to the armed forces of the Philippines.
A Malaysian bomb-making expert was killed in the attack, a Philippine officer said.
Remote, Muslim-majority parts of the southern Philippines have become a haven for al Qaeda-linked militants from around the region.
Foreign militants have found shelter with Philippine Muslim rebels who have been battling the central government of the Christian-majority country for decades.
Among those killed on Thursday was Malaysian bomb expert Zulkipli Bin Hir, alias Marwan, and Singaporean Muhammad Ali bin Abd Al-Rahman or Mauiyah, a Philippine officer said.
A top official of the Philippine rebel group Abu Sayyaf, Gumbahali Jumdail, or Dr Abu, was also killed, said General Jessie Dellosa, Philippine armed forces chief of staff.
Jumdail was involved in the 2001 kidnapping of an American missionary couple and the 2000 abduction of 21 tourists in Sipadan, Malaysia, he said.
Major General Noel Cobbales, head of the Western Mindanao command in the Philippine south, said the military began planning the attack after getting reports that 30 militants, including six JI members, had arrived on Sulu in December.
"This is major because we are talking of three leaders," Cobbales told reporters. "This would have a very big impact on the capability of the terrorists."
"We want to assure the people of Sulu that our operation is aimed against known members of the terrorist groups - Abu Sayyaf and JI - who are now expanding their presence," he said.
The southern Philippines is a focus of the U.S.-led international campaign against militancy, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The United States has some troops helping train Philippine forces in the region.