Muslim militants disguised as policemen and soldiers detonated bombs and opened fire on Tuesday in a series of coordinated attacks in a southern Philippine city, triggering clashes that killed at least 11 people, officials said.
About 25 Abu Sayyaf militants were involved in the attacks in Isabela city on the island province of Basilan, one of the most daring operations by the al-Qaeda-linked group in recent months, regional military commander Benjamin Dolorfino said.
The dead included three marines and three militants, including an Abu Sayyaf commander identified as Bensar Indama, who wore a police camouflage uniform. A policeman and four civilians were also killed, Lt. Gen. Dolorfino said. Five people were wounded by gunfire, including two militants, who were captured, he said.
Isabela is one of two Christian regions on predominantly Muslim Basilan, the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf, which has long been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization due to its involvement in kidnappings, bombings and other acts of banditry.
American counterterrorism troops based in a military camp in Isabela, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, were unaffected by the attacks and were providing intelligence to help local troops pursue the Abu Sayyaf gunmen, Rear Adm. Alex Pama said.
The attacks began just after the morning rush hour when a bomb in a van exploded and damaged a grandstand in a sports centre. Another bomb attached to a motorcycle went off an hour later at the back of a Roman Catholic cathedral, where five cars were damaged, and a third explosive was found near the residence of a local judge and detonated by troops, Lt. Gen. Dolorfino said.
Army, police and marines rapidly swarmed into the city and engaged the militants, who split into at least three groups as they withdrew. The gun-battles sparked panic and sent passers-by fleeing for cover, officials said.
Rear Adm. Pama, who heads a counterterrorism force, said the militants may have intended to detonate additional bombs and apparently tried but failed to take hostages before fleeing.
“They had a big plan, a major attack that we foiled,” Rear Adm. Pama said.
“If they intended to carry out a Mumbai-style attack, then it backfired,” Rear Adm. Pama told The Associated Press, referring to the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai by 10 gunmen who stormed two luxury hotels, a Jewish centre and a train station.
After the first bombing at the sports complex, marines responded but were met by sniper fire that killed three of them, marine commandant Juancho Sabban said.
“The marines did not know where the snipers were firing when they were ambushed and that led to the death of three marines,” Maj. Gen Sabban told The AP.
Rear Adm. Pama said that witnesses reported seeing a notorious Abu Sayyaf commander, Puruji Indama, who has been blamed for kidnappings and beheadings, but that he managed to escape. Puruji is a brother of Bensar, who was killed by troops, Rear Adm. Pama said.
Government troops were pursuing the attackers and caught up with one group of militants in Isabela’s outskirts, sparking a brief clash and enabling the troops to seize a van used by the gunmen, Lt. Gen. Dolorfino said.
Security forces immediately set up checkpoints in Isabela and nearby towns. Military and police also strengthened security in nearby Zamboanga city, which has been hit by deadly bombings blamed on the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of at least four Muslim groups fighting for a separate homeland in the predominantly Catholic nation’s south for decades. The government has dismissed the Abu Sayyaf as a bandit group, which has been crippled by relentless U.S.-backed military offensives.
But the group, which is estimated to have more than 390 fighters, has periodically surprised authorities with high-profile attacks and is still considered a major security menace.
In February, militants raided a Basilan village, killing 11 people, including four children, in the wake of the recent killing of an Abu Sayyaf commander and the arrest of two key members. Government forces had been told to be on alert for reprisal attacks.
Keywords: Muslim militant attacks,