Abu Sayyaf militants killed seven Philippine marines and wounded 21 others who were about to raid their jungle camp Thursday in some of the fiercest fighting this year between the military and the al-Qaida-linked rebels.
About 30 marines maneuvered in stormy weather close to the encampment of about 70 militants in mountainous Patikul township in southern Sulu province, setting off the gunbattle before dawn, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said.
A military report, citing intelligence, said at least 13 militants may have been killed in the initial clash and follow-up fighting but troops did not recover any bodies.
The militants were led by Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed commander long wanted by U.S. and Philippine authorities for a string of bombings and kidnappings.
The marines moved overnight on a mission to capture Sahiron, Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon and allied militants belonging to the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. The militants were encamped along the slopes of two adjacent mountains, the report said.
Washington has offered $1 million for the capture or killing of Sahiron and $5 million each for Hapilon and Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a U.S.-trained Malaysian engineer. He has been hiding in Sulu and is one of the highest Jemaah Islamiyah leaders still at large in the region.
"They were able to the penetrate the camp but the militants were positioned on higher ground, that's why we had casualties," Cabangbang said.
Despite the large number of military casualties, the militants withdrew into the woods after five hours of fighting and government forces captured their hide-out.
The fall of the major Abu Sayyaf stronghold, which is still being searched by troops, was a key victory that came with a steep price, the military said.
"Nothing is free," military spokesman Commodore Miguel Jose Rodriguez said, adding that the marines clashed with veteran jungle-based fighters, who were being pursued by reinforcement troops.
The dead and wounded marines could not be immediately airlifted from the battle zone due to bad weather, Cabangbang said.
Philippine military offensives backed by U.S. training and intelligence have weakened the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it remains a key security threat.
The group is notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings over the last two decades. It is believed to be holding a number of hostages, including two Americans, a Malaysian, an Indian and a Japanese treasure hunter in Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province 610 miles (980 kilometers) south of Manila, and nearby Basilan islands.
The government's Anti-Terrorism Council, meanwhile, has designated the national police to take the lead in the country's battle against terrorism, with the military backing it up, according to documents seen by The Associated Press on Thursday. The decision, made last month, was unrelated to the latest military setback.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose department oversees the 120,000-strong police force, said the military would still lead assaults against the Abu Sayyaf in tough areas like Sulu but the police would gradually play a more active operational role in battling terrorism.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the decision will help free up troops so they can eventually switch to their main role of external defense.