20 soldiers wounded in Philippine gunbattle with Abu Sayyaf, says military

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) - Twenty soldiers were wounded on Friday in an hours-long gunbattle between troops and Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists blamed for beheadings and kidnappings in the southern Philippines, the military said.

"There is still sporadic fighting in the area. Operations are still going on," national military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.

The military launched the assault on the strife-torn southern island of Basilan as part of an operation to capture Puruji Indama, an Abu Sayyaf commander notorious for beheading and mutilating victims, Lieutenant Colonel Zagala told AFP.

Indama, who has a bounty of 3.3 million pesos (S$92,840) on his head, has also been blamed for holding foreigners for ransom in the southern Philippines over the years.

The gunbattle with Indama's band of about 20 fighters began in a rural area of Basilan - almost 900 km south of the Philippine capital Manila - in the morning and has dragged on into the afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel Zagala said.

The military spokeswoman for the south, Captain Rowena Muyuela, said that the number of wounded soldiers had reached 20 with at least two in a serious condition.

"Based on ground reports our troops managed to neutralise (an) undetermined number of the Abu Sayyaf members," she added.

Indama is a member of Abu Sayyaf, a self-styled Islamic militant group which was set up in the 1990s with seed money from the late Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

It has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the country's history including bombings.

Abu Sayyaf members are also believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of a Chinese tourist and a Filipina worker from a Malaysian dive resort on April 2.

It is thought that the hostages have been hidden on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.

The islands of Jolo and Basilan, which are about 70 km apart, are both known strongholds of the group.

But Lieutenant Colonel Zagala said the Basilan operation was not linked to the kidnapping in Malaysia.

"This is very specific. It is concentrated on Puruji Indama. He has long been targeted. It is separate from the kidnapping incident. There are other groups who are tasked to do that search," he said.

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