Two Muslim rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, attacked a military outpost and a convoy of troops yesterday in the southern Philippines, sparking a clash that killed two guerrillas and wounded 10 marines, the military said.
The fighting between the marines and the combined forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf broke out after dawn on Basilan Island, forcing villagers to flee, the military and the rebels said.
Both sides blamed each other for starting the fighting, which erupted during a withdrawal of Malaysian peacekeepers who have helped to prevent such violence in the past.
Marines commandant Lieutenant General Benjamin Dolorfino said an unknown number of MILF and Abu Sayyaf guerrillas attacked a marine detachment in Basilan’s remote Ungkaya Pukan township at daybreak, sparking a gunbattle.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in that clash.
Marine reinforcements aboard an armored carrier and trucks were later ambushed by the rebels, setting off a clash near Ungkaya Pukan that killed two rebels and wounded 10 marines. The armored carrier was damaged by a rebel land mine, Dolorfino said.
Government troops were pursuing the attackers and helicopter gunships were on standby in case the conflict were to escalate. The MILF-led attack violated a ceasefire, he said.
“This is definitely a ceasefire violation, and we will protest,” Dolorfino said.
Mohagher Iqbal, a MILF leader, said the marine forces advanced threateningly toward a rebel stronghold, triggering a gunbattle that killed at least one rebel and inflicted casualties among the marines. A tank and a truck were destroyed in the fighting, he said.
Iqbal denied that his forces were backed by Abu Sayyaf militants.
The MILF, which fights for Muslim self-rule in the south, always denies any link with Abu Sayyaf, a smaller but more brutal group linked to al-Qaeda and blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group for ransom kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.
But the Philippine military and police say they have intelligence indicating tactical alliances between the two groups, which are both active on predominantly Muslim Basilan Island.