Philippines: Suspected militant attack kills 11

MANILA: Suspected al-Qaida-linked militants raided a village in the southern Philippines early Saturday, killing 11 people in the country's worst militant attack on civilians in nine years.

Gunmen from the extremist Abu Sayyaf group backed by renegade Muslim separatist rebels fired grenade launchers and automatic rifles on houses while residents were asleep, killing one government-armed militiaman and 10 civilians in the village of Tubigan on Basilan Island, said deputy regional police commander Sonny David.

"The villagers were sleeping when the Abu Sayyaf came with their guns blazing. They spared no one, not even the children," David said.

The attack came in the wake of the recent killing of an Abu Sayyaf commander and the arrest of two key members. Government forces had been told to be on alert for reprisal attacks.

"It's a normal thing for them to retaliate," David said. "We're not lowering our guards, particularly at soft targets like markets, schools, churches, piers and public utility terminals."

Four children were among those killed, said armed forces spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner. He corrected an earlier report that the target of the attack was the village's militia detachment.

"They really attacked the villagers," he said.

One of the villagers, who are mostly citrus farmers, told police he was awakened by the sound of gunfire and saw blood oozing from his body, David said.

The gunmen strafed and torched at least 10 houses before escaping, David said. A 32-year-old woman and her 1-year-old daughter burned to death in their house, he said.

At least 11 who suffered burns and gunshot wounds were taken by boat to two hospitals in the nearby port city of Zamboanga, hospital staff said.

David said about 70 Abu Sayyaf gunmen backed by rogue elements of the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front were involved in the attack.

Mohagher Iqbal, the chief rebel negotiator in peace talks with the government, said his group's local cease-fire committee reported no members of the Moro front were involved.

It was the worst attack on civilians since 2001, when militants seized dozens of villagers and later beheaded nine farmers and shot to death another in Basilan's Lamitan township.

Basilan Island is about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila. It is one of several islands where the Abu Sayyaf is active.

Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad — wanted for murder and kidnappings, including last year's abduction of three Red Cross workers — was killed last weekend during a raid on his camp on Jolo Island farther south of Basilan.

A day earlier, police captured Mujibar Alih Amon, an alleged Abu Sayyaf logistics officer who took part in the 2000 abduction of American Muslim convert Jeffrey Schilling, who later escaped, and 21 Western tourists and staff of a Malaysian resort earlier that year.

Last week, security forces captured Jumadali Arad, who allegedly operated the speedboat used in the abduction of 20 hostages snatched from a southwestern resort in 2001. The hostages included three Americans, two of whom were later killed.

In the last six years of U.S.-backed counterterrorism strikes, Philippine security forces have killed or arrested more than 800 suspected militants, including 12 in February alone, said Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor.

The Abu Sayyaf, which is fighting to create an Islamic state in the predominantly Christian nation, still has about 400 fighters. It is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

Saturday's attack came a day after security forces rescued two Chinese nationals in nearby Sumisip township. The two men were abducted by suspected militants from a plywood factory in Maluso in November. A Filipino worker who was seized along with them was earlier beheaded by the kidnappers.