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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Philippine army kills five rebels in clashes

MANILA, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Philippine troops killed five suspected members of Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown Muslim terrorist group with links to al Qaeda, in fierce fighting on a southern island, a senior military official said on Wednesday.

Five soldiers were wounded in the clashes, which started after dozens of militants fled air strikes on their camp on Jolo island on Tuesday, said Colonel Antonio Supnet, chief of staff of the military's southern command.

A civilian guide was also killed.

Other military officials said the number of Abu Sayyaf casualties was still to be determined.

Manila, backed by U.S. intelligence, is trying to stop Abu Sayyaf and members of al Qaeda's regional franchise, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), from using its remote southern islands as bases to train and plot bomb attacks.

The Philippine military has said it is confident it will flush out JI's Dulmatin and Umar Patek, suspects in the 2002 Bali bombings, and Sayyaf's chief Khaddafy Janjalani from Jolo because they no longer enjoy the support of local Muslim separatists.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is supporting the army's current assault on the Abu Sayyaf after a truce between it and the military was agreed at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Conference in May.

Last year, MNLF forces loyal to jailed leader Nur Misuari fought alongside Abu Sayyaf, the smallest of four Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines with around 400 members.

Muslim separatists in the south have been fighting since the 1960s for greater independence from the predominantly Catholic central government in a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development.

Manila, also fighting a communist insurgency, is currently trying to hammer out a peace with the largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to establish a homeland for at least 3 million Muslims living in the south.

But the government wants to destroy Abu Sayyaf, blamed for the country's worst terrorist attack, the bombing of a ferry near Manila in February 2004 that killed more than 100 people.
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