ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – Government troops and suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas exchanged gunfire Tuesday near the base where U.S. special forces are moving in as part of a counter-terrorism training exercise, a Philippine military official said.
The seven American soldiers already there were not in danger and were not involved in the fighting on Tinggolan island off Maluso town on southern Basilan island, said Col. Alexander Aleo, an army brigade commander on Basilan.
"The American soldiers are training. They would not join the ongoing fighting," Aleo told The Associated Press.
Also Tuesday, Philippine soldiers rescued two coconut farmers abducted by Muslim extremist guerrillas for allegedly spying for the military, an army official said.
Soldiers raided a remote area on Basilan where the guerrillas encamped with their captives near Isabela, forcing Abu Sayyaf guerrillas to flee and leave the farmers behind, Aleo said. The farmers were kidnapped Sunday.
The clash on Tinggolan, about eight miles from Maluso, underscores the danger American troops face as they bring the U.S.-led global war on terrorism to the southern Philippines, long a hotbed of Muslim separatist rebellion.
Army officials said the navy forces traveled by rubber boats to Tinggolan to check recent sightings of armed men suspected to be Abu Sayyaf. As the government troops landed, they came under fire.
Aleo said soldiers sought reinforcements and two helicopters were deployed to fire rockets at the militants. At least two soldiers and an undetermined number of rebels were wounded.
Seven Americans are staying in a Philippine marine battalion camp at Maluso. They are part of an initial deployment of 160 special forces joining a six-month training exercise aimed at wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, linked in the past with Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.
The Abu Sayyaf has been holding Wichita, Kan., missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap hostage, taken during a series of abductions beginning last May.
Some of the hostages taken since May — including Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. — have been beheaded. On Monday, the government released to television networks a gruesome videotape of alleged guerrillas beheading captured soldiers.
Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, a military spokesman, said Tuesday the videotape was seized last year at an Abu Sayyaf camp on Basilan and shows beheadings that followed a January 1995 clash with rebels.
Under the terms of the military exercise, American troops would be allowed to venture into Basilan combat zones to observe Filipino troops hunting the Abu Sayyaf. U.S. soldiers only can shoot in self-defense to comply with Philippine constitutional limits on foreign combat troops.
President Bush wanted U.S. combat troops to battle the Abu Sayyaf directly. Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, criticized by left-wing groups for her perceived pro-American leanings, instead limited U.S. forces to conducting war drills near rebel strongholds.
The exercise tentatively is scheduled to end in June.
On Monday, four U.S. special forces soldiers drove to a marine encampment in the hilly outskirts of Maluso. The soldiers surveyed a helicopter landing field ahead of the arrival of more American troops.
The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, and the United States forged a Mutual Defense Treaty about 50 years ago and remain close military allies.