Thousands of people have fled their homes on the southern Philippine island of Jolo as troops pursue Muslim militants blamed for killing more than 20 soldiers, officials said on Saturday.
Jolo brigade commander Colonel Anthony Supnet said his troops would continue to hunt the gunmen, even though they had broken up into smaller groups and scattered into the hinterlands of Jolo.
Supnet said the attackers were members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a group that had signed a peace accord with the government in 1996, and the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group not covered by the accord.
He accused the MNLF of helping the Abu Sayyaf, saying that a prominent Abu Sayyaf member who was killed in the fighting had an MNLF membership card.
The military has suffered at least 26 dead and 17 wounded in the fighting in Jolo over the past week. Most of them were killed in two ambushes on Thursday.
Five Muslim rebels have also been confirmed killed but Supnet said that local residents told them that about 40 had been slain. He said the rebels removed the bodies of their comrades.
He alleged that among the rebels hiding with the MNLF forces were two wanted members of the South-east Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyaah, Dulmatin and Umar Patek.
Dulmatin and Umar Patek are accused of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings that left over 200 people dead. The Abu Sayyaf are blamed for the worst terror attacks in the Philippines, mostly targeting Christians and foreigners.
Both the Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf have been linked by local and foreign intelligence services to the al-Qaeda network.
Supnet said the operation would continue despite the deaths of the soldiers.
“We have a price to pay and we cannot hide our casualties, unlike the opposition. We won’t stop until we get these high value targets,” he said.
The fighting has caused about 8 000 people to flee their homes, the provincial disaster coordinating council said.
Social welfare officers, who were to distribute relief goods to the villagers, were only able to enter the affected areas on Saturday because of the threat of attack earlier.
About 6 000 soldiers have arrived in Jolo to bolster the operation against the Abu Sayyaf and MNLF. — AFP