MANILA (AP) — Philippine troops battled Muslim guerrillas Tuesday in fierce fighting in a volatile southern province that killed at least 15 combatants and left 10 soldiers missing, officials and rebels said.
Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, a regional military spokesman, said the fighting erupted at dawn Tuesday near Al-Barka town on Basilan island when troops were investigating reports of rebel incursions, and sporadic clashes continued late into the night in the remote region.
At least 12 soldiers were killed and 11 wounded, and 10 others were missing, he said.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Von Al Haq said at least three rebels were killed in the clash.
He said government troops provoked the fighting by attacking the rebels in their Al-Barka stronghold in violation of an existing cease-fire.
Army troops shelled the rebel stronghold after the initial clash, trapping villagers in the fighting, he said.
Col. Cabangbang said troops were deployed to check reports by villagers that a group of gunmen known to be holding kidnapping victims had strayed areas close to their communities. He said the troops did not intrude into the rebel stronghold and were fired upon by the Moro rebels, prompting troops to fight back, he said.
The gunmen were led by a commander identified as Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who escaped from a Basilan jail in 2009 with 30 other inmates. Mr. Asnawi was detained for his alleged involvement in the beheading of 14 marines during a 2007 clash in Al-Barka, Col. Cabangbang said.
"When we're running after a criminal and get near their area, they cannot just kill our soldiers," Col. Cabangbang told the Associated Press by telephone.
The 11,000-strong rebel group has waged a bloody insurgency for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development of the resource-rich Mindanao region.