- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - At least 18 soldiers were killed in fierce daylong fighting with Abu Sayyaf extremists in the southern Philippines on Saturday in the largest single-day government combat loss this year, officials said.

At least 52 other soldiers were wounded in the clashes with the Abu Sayyaf and its allied gunmen in the hinterlands bordering Tipo Tipo and Al-Barka towns on Basilan island, three military officials told The Associated Press. Four militants were killed in the clashes, they said.

The three senior military officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss details of the clashes. The large combat casualties were reported as the country marked the Day of Valor to remember Filipino veterans who perished in World War II.

Government forces were deployed to kill or capture Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, who has publicly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and has been hunted for years for his alleged involvement in several terrorist attacks, the officials said.

The militants, however, apparently managed to reinforce their ranks quickly and managed to muster between 100 and 150 fighters, allowing them to inflict large casualties on troops, the officials said.

It’s the largest single-day government combat loss this year in the south, where the military has been battling Muslim separatist rebels and extremists, and Marxist guerrillas.

The Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1991 in Basilan, about 880 kilometers (550 miles) south of Manila. With an unwieldy collective of preachers and outlaws, it vowed to wage jihad, or holy war, but lost its key leaders early in combat, sending it on a violent path of extremism and criminality.

The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for deadly bombings, extortion, kidnappings for ransom, and beheadings of locals and foreigners, including Christian missionaries in the south. More than a decade of U.S.-backed Philippine offensives have weakened the Abu Sayyaf, but it remains a key security threat.

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