ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – Abu Sayyaf insurgents killed six soldiers in the southern Philippines on Sunday despite a new army offensive against the al-Qaeda-linked group, a military spokeswoman said.
The soldiers were patrolling in the strife-torn island of Basilan when they were attacked by about 20 heavily-armed fighters.
Regional military spokeswoman Captain Rowena Muyuela said there were also “most likely… undetermined casualties on the Abu Sayyaf side”.
The incident came despite a military offensive that was launched over the weekend against the Abu Sayyaf in the island of Jolo, 129 kilometres (80 miles) from Basilan.
On Saturday troops battled about 60 Abu Sayyaf fighters in Jolo and used helicopter gunships to blast their positions, the military said.
Troops were still pursuing the extremists in Jolo, Muyuela said.
She said soldiers on the ground in both Basilan and Jolo had reported casualties among the Abu Sayyaf but could give no exact figures.
President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma said in Manila that the military had launched their offensive on Aquino’s orders.
“We launched this operation so we can put a halt to the actions of this bandit group that has been sowing fear and bloodshed among our people,” he said.
The heavily-forested islands of Basilan and Jolo are known strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf, which was set up in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
It has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the country’s history including bombings and mass kidnappings of Christians and foreigners.
It has engaged in extortion and banditry, demanding huge ransoms for its kidnap victims.
Last month the group released two German hostages it had held for six months. It is believed still to be holding several foreign and local hostages.
Although the military says Abu Sayyaf numbers only about 400 fighters, it replaces any lost personnel from relatives in impoverished and clannish Muslim communities that also offer sanctuaries against military assaults.
The Abu Sayyaf recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, although the military and government officials say this is merely a propaganda move to raise their profile.