Philippine marines killed in clash with rebels
MANILA, Philippines – Muslim insurgents ambushed a Philippine marine convoy searching for a kidnapped Italian priest and killed at least 14 troops, beheading at least 10 of them, a military spokesman said Wednesday.The chaotic, seven-hour firefight took place in dense jungle on the southern island of Basilan. The government has touted Basilan as a success story in the war on terrorism since U.S. troops carried out yearlong counterterror training exercises there in 2001 aimed at helping oust the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.The military blamed the Abu Sayyaf for Tuesday’s clash and said nine other marines were wounded.But in a sign of the tangled situation in the area, a leader of a separate Muslim separate group said the marines had attacked one of its strongholds, where rebel forces fought back.Mohagher Iqbal – chief negotiator for the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in peace talks with the government – denied his forces were responsible for the beheadings, but said he would investigate.A small convoy of light tanks and trucks, accompanied by a three-man crew from the GMA television network, went to the town of Tipi Tipo to check a reported sighting of the Rev. Giancarlo Bossi, a 57-year-old missionary from Milan who was abducted June 10.The troops found nothing and left, but one truckload of marines got stuck in mud and was left behind. A second truck, accompanied by the TV crew, went back to help. All were about to leave when snipers opened fire from dense foliage in high ground just above the road, GMA reported.The gunfire quickly escalated, with rocket-propelled grenades exploding among the stunned troops. One of the marines’ tanks fired into the jungle. Two marine helicopters overhead did not engage the militants because of their proximity to the troops.Troops later recovered the bodies of 14 marines, Caculitan said. At least 10 of the bodies were beheaded.The military said at least 300 al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, joined by “lawless groups,” had ambushed the heavily outnumbered marines.But Iqbal accused the troops of violating a 2003 cease-fire, saying they failed to coordinate their movement into the area with the Moro front. Four Moro front members were killed and seven were wounded in the fighting, he said. He ruled out that Abu Sayyaf militants – who have beheaded hostages before – had sought refuge in the Moro front’s area.”It cannot be a mistaken encounter because it was a deliberate act on the part of the marines that entered the area … in complete violation of the cease-fire,” Iqbal said.Still, he said the clash was only a “tactical problem” and would not hamper peace talks with the government.Caculitan said there were unconfirmed reports that senior Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon’s group was sighted in the area.Washington has offered a $5 million reward for Hapilon, who has been linked to the abduction of 17 Filipinos and three Americans in May 2001.Philippine officials have issued conflicting statements on the identity of groups that might have kidnapped Bossi. They initially blamed a Moro front commander, but the group denied any role and deployed forces to help government troops search for Bossi.National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales has said Abu Sayyaf militants may have been responsible. But army officers say Abu Sayyaf gunmen do not have a presence where Bossi was kidnapped.—Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez contributed to this report.