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Philippines: New Operation Targets Abu Sayyaf Rebels - 2002-06-28

Philippine forces are mounting what is described as a major operation against Muslim rebels in the southern Philippine provinces. The fighting aims to crush the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, which is responsible for dozens of kidnappings and murders.

Elite Philippine troops are stepping up operations against the Abu Sayyaf fighters a day after rebel guerillas killed one officer and wounded six other Philippine troops. The fighting is taking place in Sulu province in the southern Philippines.

In a speech in Manila, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo called the fighting a major battle. The pursuit has stepped up since some of the rebels were cornered early this month. The fight left two of three hostages the group had been holding dead - an American missionary and a Philippine nurse.

Last week, the army fired on a small boat carrying rebels. Troops say three of them appear to have been killed, including chief spokesman Abu Sabaya. However, their bodies have not been found.

Colonel Fredesdindo Covarrubias is the military spokesman in Zamboanga, the main city of southern Mindano province. Friday afternoon, he was still waiting on possible casualty figures for the latest military operations. He says the troops have captured several Abu Sayyaf camps.

"This is a result of the continuous operations we are conducting now in Sulu, particularly in Patikul, where the operating troops of the Armed Forces were able to recover four camps of the Abu Sayyaf," he said.

Three Philippine infantry battalions, a Scout Ranger unit and a Special Forces unit are involved in the fighting.

About 1,000 U.S. troops are in the southern Philippines, taking part in a training exercise with the Philippine military. Colonel Covarrubias, however, says the Americans are not involved in the fighting.

The Abu Sayyaf, a constant thorn in the side of President Arroyo's administration, is believed to have been reduced from about 1,000 fighters to fewer than 250 over the past year. The group says it is fighting for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines, but has become best known for dozens of kidnappings for ransom.

The southern provinces, one of the poorest regions in the country, have long seen Muslim insurgents fighting for greater autonomy. In recent years the major Muslim groups agreed to a cease-fire with the national government in Manila.