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Troops, Muslim extremists renew fighting in Philippines
MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine troops, backed by helicopter gunships, pounded Muslim extremist guerrillas with artillery and rocket fire Monday in the latest clash in a U.S.-backed military offensive, officials said.
At least one soldier was wounded and an unspecified number of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas were killed or injured in the mountainous hinterlands of Patikul town on Jolo island, the military said.
The guerrillas were dragging away their wounded or dead, making it hard to estimate their casualties, military spokesman Lt. Col. Danilo Servando said.
Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, who heads the southern Philippine military command, said army scout rangers fought the same guerrillas last Thursday, when one army officer was killed and seven soldiers were wounded.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the military has captured four guerrilla camps in Patikul since Thursday. She described the current offensive as a major attempt to wipe out remnants of the al Qaida-linked group on Jolo island.
The guerrillas, a combined group of Abu Sayyaf led by chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani and Radullan Sahiron, had been tracked by U.S. surveillance aircraft, Carolina said last week.
Sahiron, a prominent rebel, is the subject of a $100,000 reward offer by the Philippine government for his capture. Janjalani is among five Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the United States, which is offering up to $5 million for information leading to their capture.
One of the five leaders, Abu Sabaya, is believed to have been killed in a sea clash with government forces last month. His body and those of two other rebels reportedly slain in the clash have not been found.
Janjalani helped lead a raid on a southwestern island resort, where the guerrillas abducted 20 people in May 2001, including three Americans. That raid set off a kidnapping spree that victimized a total of 102 people, 18 of whom were beheaded or hacked to death.
An army rescue attempt on the final three hostages on June 7 left American missionary Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap dead. Burnham's wife, Gracia, was wounded but survived.
Abu Sayyaf rebels inhabit Jolo, about 580 miles south of Manila, and nearby Basilan island and the Zamboanga peninsula in a region wracked by a crushing poverty that Arroyo says has helped provide a breeding ground for the guerrillas.
Separately, a U.S. counterterrorism training exercise for Philippine troops has been declared a success, with American forces playing an "important role" in helping combat Muslim terrorists, according to a joint statement released Monday.
U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Thomas Fargo and Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Roy Cimatu also approved a joint program for 2003 under a bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty, according to the statement from Honolulu, dated last Thursday.
Next year's program will include "combined military exercises, exercise-related construction activities, personnel exchanges and ship visits, and security assistance activities," the statement said. It will be submitted to the two governments for review and approval.