The Philippine government and Muslim rebels say nearly 30 people may have been killed in the heaviest fighting in recent months in the island republic's restive south. From the VOA Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok, Roger Wilkison reports government marines were searching for a kidnapped Italian priest when a clash erupted in which at least 14 marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded.
The marines were looking for Giancarlo Bossi, an Italian Roman Catholic priest kidnapped last month. The government believes the priest may have been taken to Basilan by elements of Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida-linked organization that is the smallest but deadliest of several Muslim groups fighting the Philippine government.
Marine spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ariel Caculitan says about 50 marines were attacked by at least 300 rebels.
"Elements of the Philippine Marines were conducting validation operations as regards to the presence of Father Giancarlo Bossi in the area of Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, but, unfortunately, when they were on their way back to the HQ (headquarters), they were ambushed by heavily armed attackers composed mainly by the Abu Sayyaf group members and some lawless armed groups in the area," he said.
But the country's biggest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, disputes the government version of the gun battle. It says the marines invaded its encampment on Basilan and that its fighters were forced to defend themselves.
The MILF is engaged in peace talks with the government and complained that the marines deliberately violated a ceasefire agreement between the two sides.
An MILF spokesman says the incident could have been avoided if the government had coordinated its move into the area with MILF forces on Basilan. He denies that the MILF was involved in the Bossi kidnapping or that it beheaded the four marines. But he says the clash should not prevent the peace talks from continuing.
The military says it cannot confirm the MILF's involvement in the fighting although it admits the MILF is active in the area. Some MILF rebels have broken away from the group and continue to fight the government.