Philippine president says major battle under way against Abu Sayyaf extremist group

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ A major battle was under way Friday against the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said.

Arroyo began a policy speech with a brief statement that troops were going after the group's top two remaining leaders and already had overrun four Abu Sayyaf camps.

``We are now having a big battle in Sulu, right in the camp where the Abu Sayyaf was born,'' Arroyo said.

Military officials had reported a clash Thursday between Philippine army scout rangers and about 150 Abu Sayyaf extremist guerrillas tracked by U.S. surveillance planes on the southern island of Jolo, in Sulu province.

An army officer was killed and six others wounded in Thursday's 30-minute gunbattle with the rebels believed led by Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani, who is on a list of Philippine terrorists wanted by the United States.

Arroyo said troops were going after Janjalani and Isnilon Hapilon, who are on a list of five Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the government. It has offered a $5 million reward for their capture.

A military statement said the Abu Sayyaf camps had been set up recently in Patikul town, the site of Thursday's clash, and may have been abandoned after the fighting.

``In one of the camps, the area had five bunkers and a mess hall large enough to accommodate more than 50 persons,'' the statement said.

The president repeatedly has vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which has staged mass kidnappings for ransom. Their most recent kidnapping spree stretched over a year and involved 102 hostages at various times, including an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan.

The Burnhams and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were the last hostages. A rescue attempt June 7 left Martin Burnham and Yap dead, along with four of the rebels. Gracia, shot through the thigh, was evacuated.

That left the rebels on the run with no more human shields, and Arroyo poured troops into the area in an effort to finish off the group.

On June 21, the military intercepted seven rebels as they tried to flee on a boat. Three were presumed dead, including Abu Sabaya, the group's chief spokesman and the man who headed the last kidnapping spree.

About 1,000 U.S. Green Berets, pilots, support staff and military engineers are staying until July 31 in Basilan, Zamboanga and central Cebu province on a mission to train and advise Filipino troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf.

Jolo, an island about 580 miles south of Manila, has long been plagued by Muslim rebels, bandits and pirates.