At least 23 soldiers and 20 Abu Sayyaf militants were killed when the army raided a training camp run by the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in the southern Philippines, the military said Thursday.
Fourteen other soldiers were also wounded when the military launched a major offensive on the Islamist militants' camp in the town of Ungkaya Pukan on the remote island of Basilan Wednesday, officials said.
The fighting was the heaviest since at least 29 soldiers were killed in two separate clashes with the Abu Sayyaf in July and August 2007 -- with the bodies of 10 soldiers later being found mutilated.
"Recovered from the camp were sizeable quantities of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) rigged to explode while others were ready for use," said army spokeswoman Lieutenant Steffani Cacho.
The Abu Sayyaf was formed in the early 1990s by Islamic firebrand Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani upon his return from Afghanistan, where he fought the Soviets alongside Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Janjalani formed the Abu Sayyaf (Bearers of the Sword) ostensibly to fight for an independent Islamic state.
He was however killed in a 1998 clash with police, and the group quickly degenerated into a terror organisation specialising in bombings and high-profile kidnappings. The group has raised money by ransoming hostages but has also killed some, mostly through beheading, when they were not paid promptly.
The Abu Sayyaf is also believed to be working alongside some 30 foreign militants from the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) who are operating in the southern Philippines.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said the military has made significant gains after taking over the Abu Sayyaf's main training camp in Ungkaya Pukan town in Basilan last August 12. He said soldiers retrieved eight large bombs at the camp plus components to make another 70 explosives.
Teodoro said the military suffered heavy casualties after members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from a nearby town ambushed a group of soldiers who were retrieving their wounded.
"Even if they call themselves MILF, they have different chiefs, different groups...What the MILF should do is admit that they have no control over these groups because it just destroys their name. [These fighters] are MILF for convenience but Abu Sayyaf in disguise," he said.
President Arroyo has ordered the complete annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf after the killings of 23 soldiers in Basilan. "The war against terror must be pursued. The annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf must be done," Teodoro quoted Arroyo as saying.
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