23 Philippine soldiers, 20 rebels killed

ZAMBOANGA: At least 23 soldiers and 20 Abu Sayyaf militants were killed when the army raided a training camp run by the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in the southern Philippines, the military said today.

Fourteen other soldiers were also wounded when the military launched a major offensive on the Islamist militants’ camp in the town of Ungkaya Pukan on the remote island of Basilan on Wednesday, officials said.

Government troops managed to overrun the camp, but reports from the field said day-long clashes that followed were fierce and led to the heavy casualties, regional commander Major General Benjamin Dolorfino said.

Numerous home-made bombs, ready for detonation, were recovered along with 13 high-powered firearms, he said.

The fighting was the heaviest since at least 29 soldiers were killed in two separate clashes with the Abu Sayyaf in July and August 2007 — with the bodies of 10 soldiers later being found mutilated.

The military “launched a decisive law enforcement operation targetting the Abu Sayyaf’s main training camp in the province”, army spokeswoman Lieutenant Steffani Cacho said. “Recovered from the camp were sizeable quantities of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) rigged to explode while others were ready for use,” she said.

The military said they were going after about 200 Abu Sayyaf militants who were involved in the clash and that additional troops may be poured into the remote area.

“The terrain is really very difficult to penetrate,” said Lt Col Romeo Brawner, overall armed forces spokesman in Manila. “Follow (up) operations are ongoing and we hope we will be able to get the remnants of this Abu Sayyaf group.” He said the military was “studying whether we need to pour in more troops into the area.”