MANILA - An army official on Monday identified factors which could have led to the loss of at least 23 lives when government forces and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) fighters clashed in a 10-hour gunfight in Basilan Saturday.
Speaking to radio dzMM, Army Western Mindanao Command spokesperson Maj. Filemon Tan said that weather conditions and ongoing cloud seeding operations barred air assets from giving support to the troops on ground.
"Sa pagkakataong ito lang po talaga, talagang very intense ang laban. And ang atin pong air support, iyung weather po ang isang kinonsidera. Low cloud seeding po kasi kaya hindi nakapagbigay ng air support," he said.
Tan also said that an added challenge to their operation is the overgrown terrain in the area.
"Pagdating po sa terrain, may kasukalan po. Kailangan nating mag-maneuver nang maayos diyan, i-asses nang maayos ang ating movements," he said.
Tan added that the ASG militants involved in clash were highly trained in warfare and equipped with powerful firearms.
He said rebels were under ASG top commander Isnilon Hapilon, one of the targets of the Army's operation.
Eighteen soldiers and five Muslim extremists, including a reported Moroccan national, were killed in the latest upsurge of violence in the troubled southern province.
Among the casualties were Moroccan-based bomb expert Mohammad Khattab, and a son of Hapilon.
Tan said several of the army's fatalities, meanwhile, died from hacking wounds but he clarified that none was beheaded, contrary to initial reports.
The clash also wounded some 53 soldiers and at least 20 other bandits, including Radzmil Jannatul, an ASG commander.
Tan said six of the wounded soldiers remain in critical condition while the rest are still recovering from minor injuries and shrapnel wounds.
Despite the heavy loss of lives, military operations in the area are still ongoing, Tan said.
"Dire-diretso po ang operasyon doon. Kahapon po napalaban ang tropa. Ngayon, we are pushing the fight. This will be a no-let-up operation," he explained.
Tan also assured that the military is following a well-formed tactical plan while reinforcements are also on standby for emergency evacuation and close air support.
The clash came a day after a retired Italian priest, Rolando Del Torchio, being held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf, was freed.
The ASG is a small group of militants known for kidnapping foreigners and demanding huge ransoms.
Eighteen other foreign hostages are being held in the Philippines, most or all of them thought to be in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.
The group was established in the early 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
Its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group that controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. -- With a report from Agence France-Presse
READ: Timeline of the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines