The Abu Sayyaf in Sulu is on the run, pursued by elite Army Scout Rangers determined to wipe out the group of al-Qaida-linked bandits.
The military pursuit entered the fifth day on Saturday, with 24 Abu Sayyaf bandits killed and 24 others wounded.
On the government side, two soldiers were killed and 26 others wounded.
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines' public affairs office, said the bandits identified with kidnappings and beheading of hostages had been driven out of villages in Patikul town, Sulu province.
Abu Sayyaf group. AP FILE PHOTO Abu Sayyaf group. AP FILE PHOTO "The Abu Sayyaf group is on the run and they are running out of ammo. The elite Scout Rangers are relentlessly tracking them down," Cabunoc said.
Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson for the military's Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) based in Zamboanga City, said the latest clash between government troops and the Abu Sayyaf group led by one-armed Radulan Sahiron took place in Kabuntakas village in Patikul on Friday.
At least 10 bandits were killed and eight others wounded in fighting that lasted for three hours, Muyuela said.
She said two soldiers were killed in the firefight and 10 others were wounded.
Muyuela confirmed that the Abu Sayyaf was on the run, saying government troops stumbled upon the bandits' camp on Thursday and found it empty.
She said the camp, with a radius of 50 meters, had about 50 bunkers that could accommodate more than 200 people.
Muyuela said the camp had running trenches, makeshift toilet and a source of water. Soldiers who seized the camp also found empty dextrose bottles and clothing, she said.
There was a report Saturday that Sahiron was wounded, but the military could not confirm the information.
"The report was not specific but most probably, he was wounded in [Friday's] encounter with the Rangers," Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, Westmincom commander, told the Inquirer.
A military source reported that Sahiron was wounded in shelling in Buhanginan village in Patikul on Friday.
3 JI members with bandits
The bandits were reportedly moving with three Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah members who were providing them bomb-making training, military spokesman Col. Restituto Padilla said.
"This [assault] will not stop until we put an end to the Abu Sayyaf," Padilla said.
The Malaysians have been "monitored for some time," he said.
Muyuela said Westmincom was verifying the report about the Malaysians and another report that said Abu Sayyaf subcommander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was wounded in fighting on Wednesday.
The Abu Sayyaf in the past have harboured Jemaah Islamiyah militants, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin, key suspects in the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people.
The group is currently holding seven hostages, according to the military.
Troops from the 1st Scout Rangers Battalion engaged Sahiron's group in Baunoh Butang in Buhanginan on Friday.
The bandits withdrew but ran into a blocking force from the 14th Scout Rangers Company. The Army provided artillery and gunship support, forcing the bandits to flee.
The 32nd Infantry Battalion threw a blockade west of the encounter site, while the 35th Infantry Battalion blocked the roads in the east.
Sahiron's group was fleeing toward Minjay in Kabuntakas.
The bandits were taking mortar fire from the Army, with troops from the 2nd Marine Battalion Landing Team waiting for them south of the engagement area.
Reports said the fighting stopped at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Military sources said Army troops were resupplying at around 4 p.m. before resuming the pursuit of the bandits deep in the jungles of Buhanginan.
Cabunoc said Army troops saw casualties, but the bodies were carried away by the fleeing bandits.
He said Sahiron's group was believed to be holding civilian hostages. He could not say, however, how many civilians were in the hands of the bandits.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. ordered the operation against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu last week, with warnings to commanders to avoid collateral damage involving civilians.
Catapang said he would use both military and nonmilitary approaches to dealing with the Abu Sayyaf.
"This is not a pure military solution to this lingering problem," he said.
Catapang said he would commit more troops to the operation against the bandits and put another group of soldiers to work with local governments and private organisations in dealing with social problems being exploited by the Abu Sayyaf to justify its lawless acts.
"The AFP, through the Western Mindanao Command, will support socioeconomic programs that will cater to livelihood, education and counterradicalization as part of the [military's] 'Whole of Government Approach' [to dealing] with the [Abu Sayyaf] problem," Catapang said.
Catapang expressed his sympathies and condolences with the families of the slain soldiers.
"I cannot describe my pain [from] losing brave soldiers in the hands of Abu Sayyaf terrorists. I share the sorrow that is felt by their loved ones," he said.
"I will make sure that appropriate honors will be given to these fallen heroes. These fine young men will not be forgotten," he said.
-With a report from AFP