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Philippine Forces Clash with Suspected Rebels - 2002-02-19

Philippine officials say their forces have clashed with suspected rebels in the southern Philippines. Two soldiers and what was called an undetermined number of guerrillas were wounded. The U.S. Special Forces deployed nearby apparently were not involved in the fight.

The clash broke out after dawn along the coast of Tengolan Island, seven kilometers off the coast of Basilan Island, where the U.S. troops are deployed.

Southern Command spokesman Danilo Servando says a navy team encountered what he called an undetermined number of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. "While they were on their way to that island, escorted by one naval gun ship, they were fired upon by these armed men, and a 30-minute gun battle ensued," Col. Servando said, adding that two attack helicopters and three navy ships were deployed to provide support. The area remains under blockade.

The clash occurred as U.S. Green Berets expanded their patrols with Philippine soldiers on neighboring Basilan Island, two days after deploying from Zamboanga. The U.S. and Philippine troops have visited several camps in the mountains of Basilan, where Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are said to operate. No encounters with the troops have been reported.

More than 50 U.S. troops are now on Basilan. Seven of them are based near the town of Maluso, which lies on the coast across from Tengolan.

The U.S. forces have authority to fire in self-defense, but are not to engage in military offensives. They are to train Philippine troops in night-vision gear and sophisticated communications equipment that is being supplied by the U.S. government as part of its war against international terrorists.

The Abu Sayyaf has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, but the group is mostly noted for kidnappings and murders. The guerrillas hold two American missionaries and a Philippine nurse hostage on Basilan.

The Philippine government Tuesday released a video tape it says the Abu Sayyaf used for fundraising purposes. The footage, some of which was broadcast by local television networks, shows individuals hacking and beheading men purported to be Philippine soldiers. Officials say they released the tape to show the true face of the Abu Sayyaf group.