MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants clashed fiercely with a larger rebel group they had long coexisted with, leaving at least 21 combatants dead in the southern Philippines, police said Monday.
A commander with the Moro National Liberation Front, which has an autonomy deal with the government, said his group battled Abu Sayyaf gunmen Sunday after the Abu Sayyaf refused to free several foreign hostages it has held in jungle lairs for months, including a Jordanian TV journalist and two European men. The militants did release two Filipino hostages who were found by police Saturday.
Eight Moro rebels and at least 13 Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in the clashes in in the jungle-clad mountains of Sulu province's Patikul town, where hundreds of armed fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front have encamped in the last three weeks to pressure the extremists to free their kidnap victims and end other acts of banditry.
There has been no word on what happened to the Abu Sayyaf's captives amid the fighting, Sulu provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said.
The fighting subsided Monday after Abu Sayyaf gunmen split into smaller groups, with a large group seen fleeing from Patikul to an adjacent town. But the clashes could erupt again, Freyra said.
It was the first major bloody confrontation between the two insurgent groups, which have coexisted for years and at times were suspected of collaborating on kidnappings and backing each other in clashes against government troops in predominantly Muslim Sulu.
Moro National Liberation Front commander Khabir Malik said his group had taken the initiative to seek the freedom of the hostages to help the government clean up the image of Sulu, where the Abu Sayyaf has carried out deadly bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, primarily in the early 2000s.
Over the weekend, Abu Sayyaf militants freed two Filipinos who worked for veteran Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani. But the militants kept Atyani himself and other foreign hostages, including two European bird watchers, a Japanese treasure hunter and a Malaysian man. At least one Filipino resident of Sulu remains with the Abu Sayyaf, police said.
Cameraman Ramel Vela and audio technician Roland Letriro, who had spent eight months in captivity, told the police that they last saw Atyani five days after they were taken into Abu Sayyaf custody, when the militants separated him from them. Atyani traveled with the two in June to Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila, to do a documentary on the country's volatile south.
Atyani has gained prominence for having interviewed Osama bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan about three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Abu Sayyaf is an extremist offshoot of a Muslim rebellion that has been raging in the predominantly Catholic nation's south for decades. U.S.-backed military offensives have crippled it in recent years, but it remains a national security threat. Washington has listed the group, which has about 380 armed fighters, as a terrorist organization.
Moro National Liberation Front rebels signed a peace deal with the government in 1996 that did not require them to disarm. They have settled back to their Sulu communities but have clashed with government troops periodically while negotiating for more concessions.
The group's stature has been overshadowed in recent years by the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is currently engaged in Malaysian-brokered talks with the government to expand and seek more power and resources for an existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.