8 more Abu Sayyaf gunmen killed in Basilan; commander hurt

MANILA -- Eight more Abu Sayyaf extremists have been killed and a top bandit commander has been wounded as Philippine troops pressed a major offensive in Mindanao following the killings of 18 soldiers in fierce fighting over the weekend, the military said Monday.

Regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said four Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were wounded in battle Saturday (April 9) later died and four other bandits were killed in fresh fighting Sunday (April 10) in the hilly outskirts of Tipo Tipo town on Basilan island.

A ruthless Abu Sayyaf commander, Puruji Indama, was seriously wounded in the head either by gun or artillery fire, Tan said. Indama has been linked to deadly bombings, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings of Filipino marines.

Daylong fighting in the outskirts of Basilan's Tipo Tipo town left 18 soldiers dead Saturday, April 9, in the military's largest single-day combat loss so far this year. The killings occurred as the Philippines marked its Day of Valor holiday to remember its war dead.

At least 53 other soldiers were wounded in the 10-hour battle that initially killed five extremists, including a Moroccan fighter who was wearing a suicide vest rigged with pipe bombs when he died, Tan said.

More than 1,500 army troops are involved in the offensive, including ground forces pursuing Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Basilan. The Abu Sayyaf was founded there in 1991 as an extremist offshoot of a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion in Mindanao.

"A soldier all the more becomes courageous when he's wounded," said military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla. "We're pursuing terrorists who are behind kidnappings for ransom and uphold a radical and extremist approach."

Asked what caused the high number of military deaths, Padilla said the soldiers were hit by bombs concealed around the Abu Sayyaf encampment to warn the militants of an impending assault. Air strikes prior to the ground assault was also called off early Saturday due to bad weather and the military instead resorted to artillery fire "to soften the target" before troops went in, he said.

As the fighting raged, the militants were able to get reinforcements, he said.

A military official in Mindanao said Abu Sayyaf gunmen may have acquired new and more powerful guns and weapons from the huge ransoms they received in exchange for releasing kidnapped foreigners. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such sensitive details with reporters.

A former Italian missionary was freed last week by the militants after six months in captivity in exchange of a huge ransom, the official said, but the military reacted by saying it's unaware of any such ransom payments.

A key target of the ongoing offensive is Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, who has publicly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and has been hunted for years for his alleged involvement in several terrorist attacks, the military said.

Washington has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Hapilon's capture and prosecution. (AP)

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