UPPER MANGGAS, Philippines (AP) _ Muslim extremists tossed grenades and shot small arms fire at a Philippine army patrol Tuesday, injuring two within earshot of U.S. troops and prompting four Green Berets to enter the combat zone to try to retrieve the wounded.
Officials said at least four Abu Sayyaf rebels were killed in the ongoing firefight that erupted Tuesday morning on the southern island of Basilan, where U.S. troops and local politicians were discussing earlier clashes nearby.
After frantic radio calls amid the distant din, four U.S. soldiers were told that 30 or so Filipino troops were surprised by about seven rebels near the meeting at the town hall of Atong Atong, about 620 miles south of Manila.
Platoon commander Lt. Lumuel Beduya later told The Associated Press that he immediately fell with a serious head wound and one of his men was shot in the arm.
``I was calling on the radio and then I met a hail of bullets _ pop, pop, pop,'' Beduya said later as U.S. troops treated his seriously bleeding wound. ``They had a sniper with them. I asked my men to stay and not withdraw. I thought my time had already come.''
The U.S. soldiers loaded into a blue pickup truck, followed by Filipino troops in another truck and an armored personnel carrier, to determine whether they could get the injured out.
Filipino soldiers ultimately evacuated their wounded colleagues. The U.S. troops were turned back by fighting, but the response marked the second time they moved into combat zones in an attempt to help wounded Filipinos.
Last Friday night, two U.S. Chinook helicopters evacuated three soldiers wounded and hauled out one dead after a clash with the Abu Sayyaf in the same area.
About 660 U.S. troops, including 160 Special Forces members, are in the southern Philippines to train Filipino soldiers battling the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group holding Wichita, Kan., missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham hostage along with Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap.
The Abu Sayyaf, thought to number 60 or so fighters on Basilan island, have been linked in the past to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.
The U.S. soldiers are armed and are allowed into combat zones but can only fire in self defense. The Special Forces members on Basilan are to stay at all times with Filipino commanders and have reportedly acted in combat zones only to treat Filipino wounded.
Filipino soldiers say U.S. night flight capability, particularly for medical evacuation, is crucial. Previously, some wounded have bled to death while being driven or hauled out of combat zones at night.
The U.S. soldiers responding to the firefight Tuesday first reached a hilltop at the edge of the combat zone where they were met an armored personnel carrier and tried to gain access to the injured.
Army Capt. John Barrow, who accompanied Filipino battalion commander Col. Reynaldo Ordonez to the scene, said ``it was too dangerous to get closer'' and they turned back. Filipino soldiers moved their wounded colleagues through the coconut groves to a beach. They were picked up by a speedboat and evacuated to a seaside clearing to meet the U.S. troops.
U.S. Sgt. Robert Burton administered an intravenous drip and comforting words to Beduya. Another American set out a fuchsia flag to signal a helicopter landing zone while one more worked the radio to call in the Philippine Huey helicopters for the evacuation.
Beduya, seemingly only semiconscious and bleeding from the head, gave a weak thumbs up when asked about his condition and then praised the Americans treating him.
``They are a morale booster,'' he said. ``They are immediately around.''