18 troops dead after Abu Sayyaf counterattack 

Philippine special forces suffered in a heavy counterattack. Source: Wikimedia

The Philippines said 23 people were killed and 70 injured in the deadliest clash between its soldiers and militants in the unstable south this year.

Eighteen soldiers died in a 10-hour clash in Basilan province on Saturday, while five members of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, including a Moroccan named Mohammad Khattab, spokesman Major Filemon Tan announced.

The rebels managed to quickly call in reinforcements after the army’s initial attack and inflict heavy casualties on government troops. At least four of the soldiers were beheaded during the fighting, said Tan.

The fighting on Mindanao, the second-largest Philippine island and home to many of its 5 million Muslims, comes ahead of the May 9 presidential election. Outgoing President Benigno Aquino has failed to get his peace deal with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front through the congress after a failed raid by the security forces in January 2015 left 44 commandos dead and drained support for the accord.

“These clashes are largely a reflection of the dangerous power vacuum emanating from the deadlock in peace negotiations and how Isis sympathisers are intent on establishing a strong foothold in the country,” said Richard Javad Heydariann of De La Salle University in Manila. “The timing of these encounters is certainly unhelpful as the country nears the election period.”

The son of Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon was killed, the military claimed. He is on the US most wanted list, with a cash reward of as much as US$5 million on his head.

Around 120 militants in the town of Tipo Tipo in Basilan province were engaged, Tan said.

The conflict came a day after an Abu Sayyaf faction released an Italian ex-missionary, after keeping the retired priest in a forest camp for six months.

Abu Sayyaf holds around 18 foreign hostages, including two Canadians and a Norwegian.

“We need to give this an urgent response because we don’t know the extent of how this will affect us as a country. I have yet to hear from our presidential candidates about their national security policies,” former military chief Rodolfo Biazon said. “This current administration cannot just leave it be, they have to do something immediately.”