Gunmen in the restive southern Philippines opened fire on three boats and killed 15 fishermen in what officials said Tuesday was likely an attack by a rival group protecting its lucrative fishing grounds.
The fishermen were aboard three small, wooden-hulled vessels off Sibago Island in Basilan province when attackers in speedboats fired on them Monday morning and then sped away, military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cagangbang said.
There were about 10 attackers, police said. No arrests have been made yet as the news reached authorities late because of the remoteness of the area, senior police official Felicisimo Khu said.
Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul was on his way to the area Tuesday, protected by a platoon of soldiers and police, to investigate the killings, Khu said.
Basilan is a stronghold of Muslim rebels who have been fighting for minority self-rule in the predominantly Christian nation for decades, as well as criminal and kidnap gangs. Law enforcement in the area is weak, and deadly clan feuds fueled by business and political rivalry are rampant. Businesses often pay protection money to armed groups and hire their own private guards.
Cabangbang told The Associated Press that the fishermen were probably attacked by a rival group of fishermen because they strayed into their fishing grounds. The victims came from Pagadian city in Zamboanga del Sur province, 100 miles (170 kilometers) northeast of Sibago.
"They were fishing in the turf of another group of fishermen from Basilan," Cabangbang said.
Seven fishermen died in one boat, five in another and three more in the third vessel, he said.
One of the survivors told police that their group had been warned to stay away from the fishing grounds where the attack took place, ABS-CBN TV reported.
Khu, the regional police official, said there was unconfirmed reports that the attacked fishermen were blamed by their rivals for destroying giant nets that they had set up worth about $3,500. Such nets are used for catching tuna, one of the Philippines' main exports.
In 2010, the Philippines exported 116,850 tons (106,450 metric tons) of tuna for a total value of $337.7 million.