ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - The Philippine military said Monday it had killed six members of an Al Qaeda-linked group that is holding three foreign hostages in the volatile south of the country.
The military launched an assault on Saturday against dozens of Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in and around a remote village on Jolo island, where the militants are holding two European tourists and a Japanese.
Marines, backed by police forces and a pro-government militia unit, launched the ground assault after acting on tip-offs from locals, local commander Colonel Jose Johriel Cenabre told AFP.
"Our firepower was controlled because we did not want any collateral damage. It was a surgical strike," Cenabre said.
He said six militants were killed and six others were wounded during a 15-minute assault, but about 50 escaped after they put up strong resistance with heavy return fire.
Cenabre said it was not immediately clear whether the hostages were with the militants when fighting erupted.
"But I can assure you that based on intelligence reports they are alive and still being kept on the island," he said.
The Abu Sayyaf seized Dutchman Ewold Horn and Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra in the Tawi-Tawi island group near Jolo in February 2012, while Amer Mamaito Katayama of Japan was abducted on the nearby island of Pangutaran in July 2010.
Founded in the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf is a small gang of self-styled Islamic militants blamed for the country's worst terror attacks, including bombings and kidnappings.
The military says its ranks have dropped to about 300, from over 1,000 early in the previous decade, following US-assisted military operations that led to the capture or death of its key leaders.
US Special Forces have been rotating through Jolo and other parts of the southern Philippines for more than a decade to train local troops battling the group, which is on Washington's list of "foreign terrorist organisations".
But the Abu Sayyaf has remained a potent threat on Jolo and its other strongholds, being able to kidnap foreigners and locals, as well as launch deadly attacks against security forces.
The Abu Sayyaf is able to survive partly because it retains support from local Muslim communities in the south, one of the poorest regions of the mainly Catholic country.
A Jordanian journalist held captive by the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo jungles for 18 months escaped in December, while an Australian national seized in 2011 was freed early last year after negotiators said his family paid ransom.