ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, July 28, 2011 (AFP) - Seven Philippine soldiers were killed and 21 were wounded in fierce clashes with Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in the southern Philippines on Thursday, the military said.
The soldiers encountered members of the Abu Sayyaf group in one of their hideouts in the forests of Jolo island before dawn, local military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolf Cabangbang told reporters.
"The encounter was fierce and troops encountered a big group of the Abu Sayyaf," he said, adding extra forces and air support had since been called into the area.
Cabangbang said it appeared the soldiers stumbled into a major Abu Sayyaf camp as they chased a small group of the militants.
"I think what happened was, the troops were on manoeuvres during the entire night, and in the morning that's when they realised they were already in the (Abu Sayyaf) camp. That explains why we have so many casualties," he said.
Cabangbang said it was believed the militants were under the control of senior Abu Sayyaf figures wanted for previous kidnappings of Americans and Filipinos in the southern Philippines.
One of those leaders is Isnilon Hapilon, the subject of a $5-million-dollar reward from the US government for information leading to his capture.
Another is Radullan Sahiron, an ageing Abu Sayyaf figure who has a $1-million-dollar bounty on his head and is easily distinguished because he lost his right hand fighting security forces in the 1970s.
However Cabangbang said it was not clear whether Hapilon and Sahiron were directly involved in Thursday's clashes.
He also said the military was not yet able to say if there were any Abu Sayyaf casualties.