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18 soldiers, 5 Abus killed in Basilan clashes

Army chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri visit one of the wounded soldiers at a military hospital in Zamboanga City yesterday. ROEL PAREÑO

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – At least 18 soldiers and five Abu Sayyaf members, including a Moroccan terrorist, were killed in a battle that grew so close since Friday it included hand-to-hand combat at a village in Tipo-Tipo town, Basilan province, a military spokesman confirmed.

Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesman Major Filemon Tan Jr. said that some soldiers were beheaded, but he declined to give the exact numbers as ground forces continue to validate the allegation. He noted, though, that the clash wounded 56 soldiers and 20 Abu Sayyaf members.

The battle erupted after 120 Abu Sayyaf terrorists ambushed troops sent for an offensive at Sitio Bayoko in Barangay Baguindan, he added. The gunfight lasted 10 hours.

“Naunahan sila,” Tan said, explaining that the terrorists initially had the upper ground and were using high-powered weapons and explosives to stop the troops whose mission was to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.

The first volley, he reported, immediately left several soldiers dead.

Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Hernando Iriberri confirmed that Moroccan bomb expert Mohammad Khattab and Ubaida Hapilon, son of the Sayyaf leader, were among those killed.

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Khattab is an Islamic jihadist who was unifying the Abu Sayyaf with international terrorist groups. His companion, Malaysian jihadist Mohammad Najib Hussein alias Abu Anas, was killed by the military last Dec. 15.

The military has yet to officially release the names of the fatalities pending notification of their next of kin. Tan said they were from the 44th Infantry battalion, 4th Special Forces battalion and 4th Cavalry troops.

Although craters were seen on the ground, he explained that these were not caused by land mines but by mortars and M203 rounds fired by the Sayyaf fighters led by Isnilon Hapilon and Furuji Indama.

“But the troops managed to retaliate and repel the Abu Sayyaf militants from seizing the momentum,” Tan said.

He added that military operations continue as the terrorist groups withdrew and splintered into smaller factions to evade pursuing troops. – With Jaime Laude

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