MANILA, Philippines – Three Filipino soldiers were killed and 17 others wounded in nearly two hours of fighting with about 150 Muslim militants in the south, the military said Sunday.
The Abu Sayyaf gunmen withdrew after the fierce clash on Saturday in the mountains of Patikul town in Sulu province, and are being pursued by government forces, said regional military spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan.
An unspecified number of militants were either wounded or killed in the latest flare-up in a monthslong offensive ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte. Tan said the troops were backed by assault aircraft and artillery fire.
The militants were led by Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed commander long wanted by the U.S. and Philippine governments for his alleged role in kidnappings for ransom and other acts. The Abu Sayyaf, an offshoot of a decadeslong Muslim rebellion in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south, have survived numerous military offensives, partly thanks to money earned from kidnappings.
In neighboring Malaysia, security forces killed three Abu Sayyaf gunmen and captured two others in a failed kidnapping attempt in Malaysia's Sabah state near the southern Philippines on Thursday. Two other militants were missing after their speedboat was hit by gunfire and sank.
Among those killed was Abraham Hamid, an Abu Sayyaf militant who, the Philippine military said, acted as a spotter in the kidnappings of two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina in the southern Philippines last year. The two Canadians were beheaded and the other two hostages were freed reportedly in exchange for ransom.
Duterte and his Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts have struggled to deal with a wave of attacks by the Abu Sayyaf and allied gunmen who target tugboats and cargo ships in the busy sea waterway. The ransom kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian crewmen have continued despite heightened coastal and border security.
Duterte recently said he had agreed to let Malaysian and Indonesian forces cross the sea border while pursuing militants and their victims. More controversially, he said it was OK for the Malaysian and Indonesian forces to bomb the militants along with their captives to ensure the kidnappers would be eradicated.