UPPER MANGGAS, Philippines -- Muslim extremists unleashed a volley of grenades and small arms fire on a Filipino army patrol Tuesday, wounding two soldiers, and prompting Green Berets to try to retrieve the injured men -- only the second time Americans have ventured into the combat zone.
The clash between about 30 Filipino troops and a group of Abu Sayyaf rebels erupted within earshot of the Green Berets as they attended a town meeting on the southern island of Basilan to discuss local residents' safety concerns.
Abu Sayyaf is believed to have links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
At least four rebels were killed in several hours of fighting on the outskirts of Lantawan town, officials said. Elite Philippine troops captured six more rebels as they fled the fighting.
After a series of frantic radio calls, the four Green Berets learned that Filipino platoon commander Lt. Lemuel Beduya had a serious head wound and one of his men was shot in the arm. Both were pinned down by enemy fire only about two miles from where the Americans were meeting local residents at Atong Atong village.
"I was calling on the radio and then I met a hail of bullets -- pop, pop, pop," Beduya later told The Associated Press as U.S. troops treated his bleeding head wound. "They had a sniper with them. I asked my men to stay and not withdraw. I thought my time had already come."
As the fight raged, the elite U.S. troops piled into a blue pickup truck and headed out to evacuate the wounded Philippine soldiers. They were joined by government soldiers in another truck and an armored personnel carrier.
Heavy fighting blocked the rescue effort and the two wounded Filipino soldiers eventually were pulled by their comrades to the safety of a helicopter landing zone away from the battle.
The Green Berets set out again for the landing zone.
"Let's rock n' roll," shouted one of them, driving and singing along to blaring Latin pop music on the truck stereo. Another fixed his assault rifle on the wild coconut groves whizzing past the window.
About 160 U.S. Special Forces members and 500 other American personnel are in the southern Philippines to train Filipino soldiers battling the rebels, who hold hostage Wichita, Kan., missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap.
The U.S. soldiers are armed but can only fire in self defense. The Special Forces members on Basilan must always stay with local Filipino commanders.
They have been in combat zones, so far at least, only to treat Filipino wounded. Friday night, two U.S. Pave Hawk helicopters evacuated three wounded soldiers and hauled out one of their dead after a clash with the Abu Sayyaf in the same area.
Unmanned U.S. surveillance aircraft overfly the island regularly, increasing the number of sightings of and engagements with the highly mobile guerrillas.
Also crucial, say Philippine commanders, is the U.S. night flight capability, particularly in evacuating men injured during clashes in the inky jungle darkness.
In the past, some wounded soldiers bled to death while being hauled overland for treatment.
The Abu Sayyaf, thought to have numbered 1,000 before an army offensive started last June, now is estimated at only 60 fighters on Basilan, about 620 miles south of Manila.
As a Green Beret helped the two wounded soldiers into a helicopter clearing Tuesday, another used a fuchsia-colored flag to mark the landing spot. A third radioed for two Philippine Huey helicopters.
"You'll be OK. You'll be OK," said Sgt. Robert Burton to the lieutenant with the head wound. The Green Beret administered an intravenous drip. "The bird is inbound."
Burton was part of the evacuation effort in the same region on Friday.
Beduya, the Philippine platoon commander, said his men had exchanged taunts with the guerrillas over an open radio frequency the night before. In the morning, he said his men found waste left behind by the rebels not far from the sandbagged, hilltop forward base where six Green Berets stay with Philippine battalion commander Reynaldo Ordonez and about 50 of his men.
Beduya, still bleeding heavily, gave a weak thumbs up when asked about his condition. But he was at himself enough to praise the Americans treating him.
"They are a morale booster," he said, blood soaking the gauze on his face and streaming onto his shirt. "They are immediately around."