BASILAN (5th UPDATE) – Five Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bandits and two soldiers were killed Friday in a day-long gunbattle between government troops and the Al-Qaeda-linked extremists blamed for beheadings and kidnappings in the southern Philippines, the military said.
Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) spokesperson Capt. Rowena Muyela said the five bandits were believed to be from Nurhassan Jamiri and Isnilon Hapilon's group. Two of the suspected bandits were identified as Asri Kalitot and Bazri Musa, while the three remain unidentified.
She said Wesmincom is presently verifying the identity of the two bandits injured during the firefight.
The clash erupted in Barangay Silangkum in Tipo-Tipo town at around 2 a.m., the military said.
Muyuela said the injured soldiers were airlifted to Camp Navarro General Hospital in Zamboanga.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, meanwhile, said the four injured soldiers decided to stay behind and rejoin the operation.
He said around 200 soldiers from the Philippine Army's 104th Infantry Brigade and Joint Special Operations Group were conducting a strike operation to apprehend ASG commander Furuji Indama when the firefight erupted.
He said Indama is the Abu Sayyaf commander behind the series of attacks at a rubber plantation in Maluso town and several kidnapping incidents in the region.
Indama has a P3.3 million bounty on his head.
''This is a deliberate operation on the presence of ASG leader Furuji Indama. It's a strike operation because there was information of his whereabouts,'' Zagala told ANC.
Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez, commander of the 104th Brigade, said the firefight moved to Barangay Baguindan, where the ASG has occupied school buildings.
The Wesmincom said bandits have occupied the Baguindan Elementary School. No hostages were taken.
Indama was part of the ASG group that killed 14 Marines in the Al-Barka ambush in 2007. Ten of the Marines were beheaded.
Indama's current group is a band of some 20 men, but military is not discounting the possibility that their relatives and sympathizers will join the fight.
Musa said residents of Barangay Baguindan were displaced due to the violence. The residents, he said, are now stranded since they cannot cross to the adjacent village.
He said he is still trying to contact the barangay chairman of Baguindan to confirm the number of families displaced.
The clashes between the two sides were ongoing, as of posting.
The Abu Sayyaf is a self-styled Islamic militant group which was set up in the 1990s with seed money from the late Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
It has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the country's history including bombings.
Abu Sayyaf members are also believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of a Chinese tourist and a Filipina worker from a Malaysian dive resort on April 2.
It is thought that the hostages have been hidden on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.
The islands of Jolo and Basilan, which are about 70 kilometers apart, are both known strongholds of the group.
Zagala said the Basilan operation was not linked to the kidnapping in Malaysia. – with reports from Jewel Reyes and Leizel Lacastesantos, ABS-CBN News Zamboanga; Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse