Mon Sep 21, 2009 5:08am EDT
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine soldiers backed by air strikes have seized the Abu Sayyaf group’s main base on the southern island of Jolo, killing 19 rebels in a complex laced with bunkers and trenches, a military commander said on Monday.
Hundreds of soldiers, supported by OV-10 Bronco planes, fought for more than six hours on Sunday to dislodge about 200 Abu Sayyaf rebels from fortified hills near Indanan town on Jolo, Lieutenant-General Ben Dolorfino told reporters.
“We had to call in air strikes because the soldiers were having difficulty in scaling the steep terrain. The air force dropped 250-lb bombs in two sorties,” Dolorfino said.
“Our troops were tracking down a senior Abu Sayyaf leader when they stumbled into the main rebel base on Jolo,” he said, adding five soldiers were wounded in the initial assault.
Jolo is the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf rebels, one of the smallest but deadliest Islamic militant groups in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.
Dolorfino said the soldiers were able to seize the rebel base after the second round of air strikes.
“Two bodies were recovered, but we were told by our intelligence people that 17 others had been killed in the air strikes,” he added.
Dolorfino said the captured rebel base could accommodate about 500 people in fortified bunkers and a network of trenches.
Dolorfino said the military could have pre-empted a key meeting of the Abu Sayyaf because three of its top leaders — Umbra Jumdail, Albader Parad and Isnilon Hapilon — were in the area when the fighting erupted.
Two known members of the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiah, including the Singaporean Mauwiyah, were said to be in the same rebel base.