MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Heavy fighting between government forces and Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines has left at least 15 rebels and three soldiers dead, officials said Wednesday.
Maj. Filemon Tan, a regional military spokesman, said the clashes began early this week as troops advanced toward an Abu Sayyaf camp in Basilan Island's Al-Barka township. He said the fighting intensified on Tuesday and sporadic skirmishes were continuing Wednesday.
At least seven militants and 13 soldiers also were wounded, with most of the government casualties hit by Abu Sayyaf snipers, he added.
Tan said troops were advancing slowly because of the snipers and have yet to capture the camp.
"If we become careless in our advance, we will have many fatalities," he said, adding that the camp is in a mountainous area and cannot be easily reached by armored vehicles.
He said the number of dead militants was based on accounts from engaged troops. The bodies were not recovered because they were dragged away by their comrades, he added.
The Philippines and the United States have listed the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for kidnappings, beheadings, extortion and bomb attacks. The al-Qaida-linked militants have been weakened but have survived more than a decade of U.S.-backed offensives.
The Abu Sayyaf is suspected of kidnapping two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman from a marina in the south in September. Militants who identified themselves in an online video as belonging to the Abu Sayyaf demanded more than $60 million for the release of the three foreigners.
The militants were also allegedly behind the beheading of a Malaysian hostage in Sulu province, where Abu Sayyaf gunmen are believed to be holding other foreign and Filipino hostages.