Philippine extremist clashes leave 14 dead

Philippine elite troops backed by helicopter gunships fought Al-Qaeda-linked militants Thursday in the group's stronghold on a southern island, in clashes that killed 14 people, the military said.

The soldiers battled Islamic extremists from the Abu Sayyaf group on the troubled island of Basilan, with the fighting leaving at least nine soldiers and five militants dead.

The group, which was founded in the 1990s with seed money from then Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in Philippine history including deadly bombings and kidnappings for ransom.

Eleven soldiers and at least five insurgents were also wounded in the clashes, which started when Abu Sayyaf gunmen attacked rubber plantation workers, said regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang.

The military had rushed to the scene to repel them, said Cabangbang, and helicopter gunships had been deployed to support the troops.

"The fighting is taking place in a forested area. Our troops are engaged in an intense running gun battle," he told AFP.

Even as troops were battling one group of rebels, more Abu Sayyaf fighters launched attacks, even ambushing the military's reinforcements, said Captain Albert Caber, the local military spokesman.

Casualty figures may be even higher as not all the fallen Abu Sayyaf fighters were recovered, the military said.

The same band of Abu Sayyaf fighters had launched similar attacks in the same part of Basilan in previous weeks including an ambush that left six farm workers dead and 22 wounded on July 11, Cabangbang said.

The plantation workers' cooperative operating in the area had previously received extortion letters purportedly from the Abu Sayyaf demanding payment of over $1,000 a month in exchange for not being harmed.

The heavily-forested island of Basilan has long been a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.

About 600 US troops have been rotating through the southern Philippines for a decade to help train local troops in hunting the Abu Sayyaf. However the Americans are barred from taking part in combat.

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