Filipino troops chase militants after deadly raid
MANILA, Philippines—Philippine troops clashed Wednesday with a top Muslim militant commander and dozens of fighters suspected of trying to seize a key predominantly Christian southern city in a daring attack the previous day that killed at least 13 people.
There was no word of casualties in the latest fighting between troops and more than 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen led by Puruji Indama, a notorious militant whose brother was among the dead in Tuesday's coordinated attacks on the Basilan provincial capital of Isabela, said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
Dozens of Abu Sayyaf gunmen, many disguised as police commandos, detonated bombs and then opened fire on civilians and troops after their apparent plan to seize Isabela faltered as government forces fought back.
It was one of the most ambitious attacks by the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent al-Qaida-linked group blacklisted by Washington following two decades of deadly bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. The Abu Sayyaf is suspected of having received training and funds from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Citing intelligence and information from captured militants, Rear Adm. Alex Pama said Abu Sayyaf gunmen may have planned to explode bombs and take over key roads as they unleashed violence in Isabela by burning buildings, kidnapping people and springing jailed detainees.
The well-funded plan was similar to the April 1995 attack on the Christian town of Ipil, also in the south, where the militants killed more than 50 people after robbing banks and stores and burning the town center.
"The Ipil raid was apparently their model for this failed siege," Pama told The Associated Press. "It was a major, well-planned attack that luckily went bad in their own hands."
A bomb in a van apparently exploded prematurely near an Isabela sports field, damaging a grandstand and catching the attention of residents and a contingent of marines, who engaged the militants.
Another bomb attached to a motorcycle went off at the back of a Roman Catholic cathedral an hour later, damaging five cars and wounding civilians. Troops later found and detonated a third bomb outside the house of a judge.
Tuesday's death toll included three marines, a police officer and three militants, including Bensar Indama, the brother of militant leader Puruji Indama and whose body was found in a police uniform.
Six civilians were killed in one residential area, where the militants tried to take a family hostage to cover their escape but later abandoned the plan and fired guns randomly, said Dolorfino, the regional military commander.
Puruji Indama reportedly fled with three men toward a mangrove area on Isabela's outskirts. Officials said that villagers sighted another 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were sent apparently to fetch Puruji, the second-highest guerrilla commander on Basilan, the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.
Troops poured into the area overnight, sparking sporadic gunbattles. Helicopter gunships stood by to support them, Dolorfino said.
The attackers slipped into the city, one of two Christian regions in the mainly Muslim island province, Dolorfino said. The planning and funding of the attack indicated the involvement of members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based Southeast Asian militant network with links to the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of at least four Muslim groups fighting for decades for a separate homeland in the predominantly Catholic nation's south. The government has often dismissed the Abu Sayyaf as a bandit group crippled by relentless U.S.-backed military offensives.
But the Abu Sayyaf, estimated to have more than 390 fighters, has periodically surprised authorities with high-profile attacks and is still considered a major security menace.