PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — Islamic militants killed 14 Marines searching for a kidnapped Italian priest during a major gunbattle, and later beheaded 10 of them, the military said yesterday.
The troops were ambushed on Basilan island by a joint force from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, a Marine spokesman said.
Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan said 14 Marines were killed in the eight-hour clash, increasing an earlier death toll after more bodies were recovered. Ten had been discovered beheaded, he said in Manila.
“All 10 Marines earlier reported missing have been found dead,” Caculitan told reporters. “All were beheaded,” he added.
Another nine were injured in the gunbattle with about 300 militants near Tipo-Tipo town on Tuesday, he said.
Intelligence reports said Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi, 57, was being kept in an area where MILF forces were known to operate and the troops had been sent in to investigate, said regional marine commander Ramiro Alivio.
About 80 Marines clashed with the MILF militants backed by Abu Sayyaf fighters, after arriving there early Tuesday, said Alivio.
“We can confirm 14 were killed and nine were wounded,” Alivio said.
“All of our men have [now] been accounted for,” he said.
Some of the beheaded had been found by provincial authorities in Basilan and been turned over to the military, other Marines said.
In Malacañang, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita expressed hope that peace talks scheduled in Malaysia with the MILF would not be endangered by the new clashes.
Bossi, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, was seized by unknown heavily armed men near his parish church in southern Zamboanga peninsula on June 10.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu acknowledged the group’s fighters clashed with the military on Tuesday, but he denied Abu Sayyaf militants were involved, and accused the troops of violating a ceasefire by entering an MILF area.
The MILF claimed on its Web site that its forces killed 23 Marines, including 10 “who were beheaded by unknown groups after the fighting.” It said the group has launched a probe “because Islam prohibits mutilation or commission of any atrocity against a fallen enemy.”
Four MILF fighters were killed in the battle and seven were injured, it added, updating the rebel toll.
The rebels destroyed two military trucks and seized 27 guns during the ambush, it added.
The 12,000-strong MILF is the country’s main separatist rebel group and is now engaged in peace talks with the government in Manila.
The Abu Sayyaf is an Al Qaida-linked group of self-styled Islamic fighters blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks and many kidnappings.
The United States has offered $5 million for the capture of its top leaders.
The government had earlier said Bossi’s kidnappers could either be Abu Sayyaf men or renegade members of the MILF, which has denied any involvement in the abduction and initially helped in the hunt for his captors.
MILF spokesman Kabalu stressed that his group had long cut links to Abu Sayyaf militants, who are known for mutilating their victims.
“The firefight was touched off because they entered our area without first coordinating with the MILF leadership as agreed upon in the peace talks,” Kabalu said.
The provocation, he said, clearly violated a 2003 truce and would be brought up at a joint monitoring committee.
“The MILF is not involved in the Bossi kidnapping,” Kabalu said.
The head of the MILF negotiating panel, Mohaqber Iqbal, blamed the government troops for violating the ceasefire, and said he would file a protest with the ceasefire committee.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s chief peace adviser, Jesus Dureza, said an international monitoring team that oversees the ceasefire was “on the ground to address the situation.”
The team, led by Malaysia, is composed of representatives of Islamic countries who are monitoring the truce between the government and the MILF.
The Catholic news agency Asianews said Tuesday it doubted that the Abu Sayyaf was involved in the kidnapping. It said it was more likely he was being held by another criminal gang.