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Official: Clash that killed 14 Filipino marines and militants part of new US-backed offensive

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Soldiers load the bodies of Philippine Marines into a military truck after being recovered from the site following a clash with Abu Sayyaf militants on Jolo island in southern Philippines Saturday May 25, 2013. At least seven Filipino marines and four Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a clash Saturday as the military launched an offensive against al-Qaida-linked gunmen who have been blamed for recent kidnappings and of trying to sabotage a road project in the southern Philippines. Nine other marines and about 10 Abu Sayyaf fighters were wounded in the gunbattle that raged for an hour in a sparsely populated village on the fringes of the coastal town of Patikul in Sulu province, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said. (AP Photo/Nickee Butlangan) (The Associated Press)

At least 14 Philippine marines and Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a clash in a new U.S.-backed offensive aimed at rescuing six foreign and Filipino hostages and stopping the al-Qaida-linked gunmen from staging more kidnappings in the country's south, a military commander said Sunday.

Seven marines and seven Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed in the gunbattle, which raged for an hour Saturday in a sparsely populated village near coastal Patikul town in Sulu province. Six marines and about 10 gunmen were wounded, marine Col. Jose Cenabre said.

Government troops backed by assault helicopters were hunting down the fleeing militants, who were believed to be led by Jul-Aswan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf commander accused in the kidnappings of a Jordanian journalist and two European bird watchers who are still being held by the militants.

One of Sawadjaan's sons and a minor Abu Sayyaf commander are believed to have been killed in the firefight, said Cenabre, who heads security forces in Sulu. He said the marines initially had difficulty returning fire because the dozens of militants took cover near a row of houses.

The flag-draped caskets of the slain marines were flown to Manila on Sunday and given military honors at an air force base amid a downpour, the latest military casualties in a battle against Muslim extremists that has dragged on for about two decades. Marine commandant Brig. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo said the battle would continue despite the setback.

The firefight was part of a new military offensive that started last week and is aimed at rescuing the three foreign captives, who were abducted last year, along with three Filipinos kidnapped separately by the militants in recent weeks, he said.

Among the Filipino captives was a marine's wife who worked in a Sulu provincial hospital and was kidnapped two weeks ago.

Although a large number of marines and policemen are involved in the offensive, only small units have been deployed to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf in two jungle encampments in Sulu, Cenabre said without providing details of the operation. U.S. forces were providing intelligence but were not involved in actual combat, he said.

While Abu Sayyaf abductions still occur, they are far fewer today than the massive kidnappings that terrorized Sulu and outlying provinces in the early 2000s, when the group had many commanders and strong ties with terrorist organizations, including Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

U.S.-backed military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, but it remains a key security threat. Washington lists the group, which still has about 300 armed fighters, as a terrorist organization.

Philippine troops and police special forces, meanwhile, killed one of two gunmen who were trying to extort money Saturday from a restaurant in Sulu's capital town of Jolo, Cenabre said.

Armed with pistols, the two men shot it out with government forces. One was shot in the head and died and the other was captured, Cenabre said. He said investigators were trying to determine whether the two had ties with the Abu Sayyaf, which is also notorious for extortion.