Suspected Muslim militants attacked government troops guarding a school construction site in a rebel stronghold in the southern Philippines yesterday, igniting a clash that killed 13 gunmen, two marines and a local villager, a marine commander and a resident said.
About 50 gunmen attacked two marine detachments in hilly Talipao town in Sulu province at dawn, setting off two hours of fierce fighting, marine commander Colonel Romeo Tanalgo said.
Six other military personnel were wounded before the gunmen separated and withdrew into the forest, he said.
Villager Miriam Jalani said her nephew was killed in their Talipao house by stray gunfire, while four relatives were wounded during the fighting. Several residents fled from their homes, hauling bags of clothes and food.
“We’re afraid we’ll also get caught in the crossfire,” she said, fighting back tears, as she prepared to flee from her home.
The attackers were likely young Muslim militants trained by the notoriously violent Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked group regarded as a terrorist organization by the US and the Philippines, and radical members of a larger rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, which also has a presence in the impoverished, far-flung community, military officials said.
The militants have formed a new group called Awliyah and are led by a commander identified as Hatib Zacaria who wants to make a name through violence, regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said. The marines have been monitoring the new group for about a year.
The marines who came under attack in their two roadside detachments were guarding a school construction site and a road project.
“These are the people who are against development, that’s why the mayor is mad,” Tanalgo said of the militants, who were mostly armed with M16 assault rifles.
The clash halted a planned Muslim wedding in Talipao, angering many villagers, some of whom offered to help fight the militants. They were not allowed to join the clash, said another marine officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Government troops recovered seven rebel firearms at the scene of the fighting and were checking if there were more bodies of slain gunmen in the area. Reinforcement troops were pursuing the fleeing militants, Tanalgo said.
The Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace accord with the government in 1996 after it dropped its secessionist bid and settled for limited Muslim autonomy in the south, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
However, most of the Moro rebels did not lay down their arms and now complain that the Philippine government reneged on many political and economic promises under the 1996 pact. They have occasionally been blamed for launching attacks against government forces and have been suspected of harboring Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu, about 980km south of Manila.
The Philippine government has been in talks with Moro National Liberation Front rebels to address their complaints.
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