Philippine troops suffered one of their worst losses in an offensive against al Qaeda-linked militants on a southern island that left at least 23 soldiers and 20 guerrillas dead, officials said Thursday.
Troops continued to scour the battlefield following clashes Wednesday with Abu Sayyaf militants in two of their jungle camps on Basilan Islan, and the tally of slain militants could rise, said regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
"It was a slugfest," Dolorfino told The Associated Press by telephone. "It was really close-quarter fighting so we couldn't use our artillery," he said, adding troops were pursuing small pockets of fleeing gunmen.
Although weakened by yearslong U.S.-backed offensives, about 400 Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Basilan and nearby Jolo Island and the Zamboanga peninsula have recently turned to ransom kidnappings to raise funds for terror attacks, officials said.
The militants held three international Red Cross workers kidnapped on Jolo for several months this year, as well as a dozen Filipino hostages. All have been released or rescued.
More than 400 marines, army and police commandos launched simultaneous, pre-dawn attacks Wednesday on two Abu Sayyaf encampments in hilly Silangkum and Baguindam villages, sparking fierce daylong fighting.
The clashes killed 20 marines and 3 army members, including two officers, in one of the biggest single-day military battle losses in recent years, Dolorfino said. Troops also found the bodies of 20 militants in Baguindan, Dolorfino said.
The offensive targeted about 60 militants in the two hilltop strongholds, led by Abu Sayyaf chieftains Khair Mundus and Furuji Indama, said Rear Adm. Alex Pama. It was not clear if they were among the dead.
Troops found several bombs, booby traps and 15 assault rifles and grenade launchers in the camps, Pama said, adding that the explosives had been safely detonated.
"The bombs were already primed to explode," he said. They may have been intended for another wave of terror attacks.
The Abu Sayyaf is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations because its bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages made it into the Philippines' most brutal rebel group.
It is suspected of having received funds and training from al Qaeda.
Security officials worry that ransom payments could revive the group in the two predominantly Muslim regions that are among the country's poorest.