Two al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf commanders, including one on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, survived a Philippine military offensive that killed eight militants and led to the seizure of their jungle lair and bomb materials in the southern Philippines, the military said on Tuesday.
The assault by more than 100 army troops early on Monday targeted Abu Sayyaf commanders Isnilon Hapilon and Puruji Indama in the outskirts of Tipo Tipo town on Basilan Island, but the two managed to escape and were still being hunted by government forces, army brigade commander Colonel Carlito Galvez said.
At least three soldiers were wounded in the main assault and two separate gunbattles afterward with about 30 Abu Sayyaf gunmen. Troops captured the militants’ lair, where they found bomb-making materials and equipment, along with sniper rifle parts, Galvez said.
The bodies of two of the gunmen were recovered by troops, he said.
Washington has offered a US$5 million reward for the capture or killing of Hapilon, who has been accused of involvement in deadly bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings, including of Americans in the past, landing him on the list of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists.
Indama has been wanted by Philippine authorities for his alleged involvement in deadly bombings and kidnappings of several people, including a former Australian soldier who was freed last month after 15 months of jungle captivity after ransom was paid.
Indama has been blamed for the 2007 beheadings of 10 marines in Basilan, a widely condemned atrocity that prompted a major military offensive against the militants.
Galvez said in a telephone interview that Hapilon and Indama are also accused of trying to sabotage infrastructure projects, including the construction of a road and a power barge, and of trying to extort money from several business firms.
“Both their signatures appeared on the extortion letters,” he said.
The attack took place near a community-like encampment of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the country with which the government has been negotiating a peace accord for years.
The Moro rebels said they were the ones attacked by army troops, adding the assault violated a years-long truce and may have been aimed at undermining their Malaysian-brokered peace negotiations with the Philippine government.
The Moro rebels said in a statement on their website that the 30-minute clash left scores of guerrilla casualties. Soldiers entered another rebel community in Basilan but the guerrillas there avoided clashing with the troops to prevent damaging the peace talks, it said.
Galvez denied troops attacked the Moro rebel camp, which was located 300 meters (yards) from the Abu Sayyaf encampment that they targeted. Abu Sayyaf gunmen have deliberately encamped there, thinking they would be backed by the Moro rebels in case of fighting with troops, he said.
The Moro rebels, however, did not help the Abu Sayyaf in Monday’s clashes, Galvez said.
The Abu Sayyaf, which was founded in early 1990s on the predominantly Muslim province of Basilan, has been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organisation for deadly terror attacks and kidnappings for ransom. US-backed offensives have killed or captured many of its commanders in recent years, leaving the group without an overall leader to unify its factions on Basilan, nearby Jolo island and the Zamboanga Peninsula.
The Abu Sayyaf, however, has survived with about 350 armed fighters, mainly through kidnappings for ransom and extortion and remains a security threat in the south.