MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE 2) At least three soldiers have been killed and 19 wounded since fighting erupted on Monday in Sulu between government troops and a faction of the Abu Sayyaf group holding three kidnapped workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a military spokesman said Tuesday.
?As of today, as of [the] last report, we have a total of 19 wounded, some slightly wounded, some seriously wounded?and we have three killed in action [as] a result of series of engagements starting yesterday [Monday] until this morning,? Brigadier General Gaudencio Pangilinan, chief of the Armed Forces? Civil Relations Service, said at a press briefing.
?These are result of series of engagements, starting yesterday until this morning. Some of the engagements lasted for several hours, some lasted overnight,? Pangilinan said.
But Pangilinan said the fighting did not mean government had decided to take the ?military option? to release the kidnapped workers.
?It is not a military option yet, not yet, so we have nothing to worry [about], we still have room for the peaceful release of the victims,? Pangilinan said, pointing out that it was the Abu Sayyaf that had initiated hostilities.
?If they would surrender then we wont fire, they become enemy when they fire at us, that was clear, the rules of engagement was clear,? Pangilinan said.
Nevertheless, despite the surge in clashes against the bandit group, Pangilinan said that the military is not yet imposing the ?military option.?
Pangilinan said the wounded soldiers included four who were hurt when troops of Special Operations Platoon 3, Marine Battalion Landing Team 3 clashed with between 50 to 90 fighters believed to be the main Abu Sayyaf force holding Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba in the vicinity of Barangay (village) Buton Mahablo, Parang town around 5:30 a.m.
Pangilinan said they have received reports that six Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed but added would verify this only if they have an actual body count.
In Sulu, provincial police director Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim said fighting was continuing in Indanan town, in the area of Tubig Dacula and Bud Taran as of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The fighting broke out Monday when Albader Parad, the leader of the Abu SAyyaf faction holding the aid workers, tried to break through a cordon of soldiers and civilian volunteers.
General Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), said soldiers had captured in Tabug Dacula what is believed to be an Abu Sayyaf camp.
However, although Allaga said the soldiers recovered some books belonging to the ICRC team, the hostages and their captors were no longer in the camp. Pangilinan also said the kidnapped aid workers? tents and other equipment had been recovered.
"We recovered their tents and other equipment that we gave them," Pangilinan told reporters.
But Kasim disputed reports the hostages? belongings had been recovered.
There have been conflicting reports about whether Parad was wounded or killed in Monday?s fighting, although most of the accounts say he was apparently shot by a government sniper.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sulu Governor Sakur Tan said Parad could have been killed in the fighitng. "All our sources confirm that he was killed," Tan said in a radio interview on DzRH. Pangilinan also suggested Parad was dead.
But Kasim said Parad was only wounded on Monday, a claim backed up by a Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net) involved in the operation who said it was an aide of the Abu Sayyaf leader who died.
Kasim also said Parad?s brother-in-law Magdar Dukabo was seriously wounded in the fighting, while a police informant said three members of Parad?s group were killed and an undetermined number wounded.
Tan said the three hostages were not with the fighters the soldiers encountered. "They are safe and as of the latest information that we have, they are in good condition," and have adequate food and medicines, Tan said.
Tan is the head of TasK Force ICRC, tasked to facilitate the release of the three hostages, who were seized near the Sulu provincial capitol on January 15.
But Pangilinan said the hostages were with the group, although the government forces involved in the clash were not aware of this at the time.
"But now we know that they are intact in one group, the Abu Sayyaf and the hostages," he said.
"We learned later that they [the hostages] were nearby" during the clash. "Now they have moved locations, they are being pursued.
"They have moved I think around two or three kilometers from the original encounter site."
The ICRC said they had not received word from any of the three ICRC captives, Filipino Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni.
Pangilinan said the fighting began Monday in Barangay Timahu, Indanan when Marines who were part of the cordon clashed with 10 Abu Sayyaf fighters, allegedly including Parad. It was in this firefight that Parad was supposedly hit.
At 1:30 p.m. the same day, pursuing soldiers encountered some 40 rebels in Barangay Sawahi, Indanan.
Pangilinan said the renewed hostilities were an indication the military?s decision to constrict the movements of Parad?s group was working. ?They are desperate, they are wanting to get out of the constriction area, and that?s how it started yesterday -- a small group looking for gaps, wanting to get out -- meaning the pressure is working.?
Asked about the military casualties, Pangilinan said: ?Parang boxing ?yan, di ka pwedeng manalo ng walang tama [It?s like boxing, you can?t win without being hit].?
He said Major General Juancho Sabban, commander of the anti-terrorist Task Force Comment, has not yet asked for reinforcements.
The Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for the country?s worst terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a passenger ferry that killed over 100 on Manila Bay.
It has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, businessmen and religious workers over the past decade and is on the US government's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
It is also blamed for the deaths of two Americans seized from a Philippine resort in 2001, one of whom was beheaded.
Elsewhere, the military said an Abu Sayyaf grenade attack on a karaoke bar late Monday on Jolo killed two people and wounded at least four, and indicated it may have been a diversionary tactic.