MANILA, Philippines – Hundreds of armed followers of a jailed former Muslim rebel leader attacked government troops and occupied at least one army detachment on violent southern Jolo island (search) on Monday, sparking clashes that killed at least 12 soldiers, officials said.
The attacks by about 500 followers of Nur Misuari in Jolo's Panamao and at least two other nearby towns were apparently touched off by a disagreement over recent military offensives against the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf (search ) that affected his strongholds, army Brig. Gen. Agustin Demaala said.
Fighting seemed to be centered in Panamao's Siit village, where up to 300 gunmen attacked and occupied an army company detachment near a civilian hospital, Demaala said.
Demaala urged the attackers to withdraw from the area to avoid full-scale fighting, stressing they were not being targeted by government troops in recent offensives.
"We're not running after them," Demaala, who heads an anti-terrorist force on Jolo, told The Associated Press by telephone. "They should withdraw so there would be no escalation of this fighting and we would not have to use bombs and stronger weaponry."
Demaala said he would ask local civilian officials to intervene to halt the clashes.
Jolo Governor Ben Loong said he was flying from Manila to his province, about 590 miles south of the capital, to help negotiate a halt to the fighting.
While a clash was underway in Panamao, about 80 suspected followers of Misuari attacked army troops involved in a civic project in nearby Parang town, killing a soldier and wounding two others. The other soldiers fired back, wounding an undetermined number of attackers, the military said.
In Patikul, also near Panamao, attackers opened fire on military reinforcements, killing 11 marines and wounding 13 others, a military officer said.
The gunmen apparently were retaliating after army troops attacked their strongholds near Panamao where Abu Sayyaf guerrillas involved in a recent kidnapping and killings sought refuge last week.
Misuari formerly headed the Moro National Liberation Front (search), a large Muslim separatist group that accepted limited autonomy and signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. He was later elected governor of the five-province Muslim autonomous region that included Jolo.
A week before elections were to be held in November 2001 to elect his successor as governor, hundreds of his followers attacked an army camp in Jolo in an assault officials alleged was aimed at derailing the ballot. More than 100 people, mostly Misuari's followers, were killed.
Misuari was arrested and jailed on rebellion charges. He is still being tried on those charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Many of his armed followers still maintain strongholds in Jolo. They have periodically been accused by military officials of supporting Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. The Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for mass kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, has been loosely linked to Al Qaeda (search).