Aug 9, 2007
MANILA, Philippines (Reuters) -- More than 50 people, including at least 25 Philippine soldiers, have been killed in intense fighting between Muslim rebels and troops on the remote southern island of Jolo, military officials said on Friday.
The fighting, in mountains near the town of Maimbung, started early on Thursday when rebels killed nine soldiers and wounded two in an ambush. One of the wounded later died.
Reinforcements were rushed to the area and troops began pursuing the rebels, officials said.
In a gunbattle later in the day, at least 10 soldiers were killed, said Major Eugene Batara, a spokesman in the city of Zamboanga, the headquarters of the Philippines (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/philippines)' Western Mindanao military command.
Fighting continued into the night and at least five more soldiers were killed, other military officials said. At least 27 rebels were killed and 10 wounded they said.
One boy was killed in crossfire.
The tropical isle of Jolo, a base for Muslim militants in the largely Catholic country, has seen an escalation in violence after the army started collecting unlicensed guns from civilians.
An army spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres, said about 100 rebels from the Abu Sayyaf and a rogue faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/moro_national_liberation_front) (MNLF) were believed to be involved in the fighting.
But, the mainstream MNLF, which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, claimed it was behind the ambush on Thursday morning, saying it was retaliation for the deaths of five people during an army offensive a day earlier.
"It was not the Abu Sayyaf," Hatimil Hassan, the deputy chairman of the MNLF, said on local TV. "It was our troops. It was the military's fault. They started it all."
It was not immediately known who was involved in the later fighting. Other rebel groups also operate on Jolo.
Last month, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/moro_islamic_liberation_front) (MILF), the country's largest Muslim separatist group, killed 14 Marines in an attack on the nearby island of Basilan. Ten of the soldiers were beheaded, but the MILF, which is meant to be talking peace with Manila, has denied its members mutilated the troops.
The military also blames members of the Abu Sayyaf (http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/abu_sayyaf_group) for the decapitations. Due to family ties on Jolo and Basilan, there are close links between the Abu Sayyaf, the MNLF and the MILF and sometimes an overlap in membership.
The Philippine government wants to seal a peace deal with the MILF but has sworn to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed for the Philippines' worst terror attack -- a ferry bombing that killed more than 100 people in 2004.
The islands of the southern Philippines, especially Jolo and Basilan, are hotbeds of extremism. They are also home to bandit and pirate gangs that prey on shipping in the South China Sea.
About 13,000 Philippine troops are on the islands to contain about 2,000 rebels. About 100 U.S. special forces are also on Jolo to help train the Philippine military, but they are forbidden from fighting under Philippine law