US-backed Filipino troops bombarded Basilan island yesterday, a day after 15 marines and 40 militants were killed in a fierce gunbattle, officials said.
The marines were killed when their unit attacked a jungle hideout of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group near Basilan's town of Ungkaya Pukan, sparking a clash during which an air force pilot also died when his helicopter crashed into the sea, the military said.
The military claimed about 40 Abu Sayyaf insurgents were killed, including two commanders who allegedly took part in beheadings of 10 marines on Basilan last month.
General Eugenio Cedo said the marines apparently underestimated the rebels' firepower.
"They were not able to assess properly the strength of the enemy during the assault," Cedo told ABS-CBN television.
Saturday's clash involved about 80 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, Cedo said, adding that hundreds of troops were pursuing those who survived.
The bodies of slain rebels were scattered around the battle scene, he said.
Troops fired 105mm howitzer shells early yesterday at suspected Abu Sayyaf positions near Ungkaya Pukan and the nearby townships of Sumisip and Tipo Tipo but there was no immediate report of casualties, officials said.
Filipino military spokesman Lieutenant Bartolome Bacarro said US forces involved in counterterrorism training in the country's south were providing intelligence to help Philippine troops track down the Abu Sayyaf militants. The US soldiers have also provided combat training to local troops.
Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had ordered a fresh offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, after it was implicated in the July 10 beheadings of 10 marines following a clash in Basilan's al-Barka township.
A larger Muslim rebel group engaged in peace talks with the government, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, admitted its rebels killed 14 marines during the clash in Al-Barka, accusing them of encroaching into a rebel stronghold.
But the group denied its men beheaded 10 of the 14 marines.
Angered by the marine beheadings, the 120,000-strong military launched a new offensive against the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan and Jolo island.