MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine military investigation concluded Thursday that friendly fire and not Muslim extremists as reported earlier killed six elite army soldiers during a clash in the restive southern region last month.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista was saddened by the finding and will decide whether charges should be filed against the marines responsible for firing the artillery round that killed six soldiers and wounded 13 others. The firing occurred during a June 19 clash with the Abu Sayyaf militants in Sulu province's hinterlands, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
The Philippines has struggled to modernize its military, one of Asia's most ill-equipped. U.S. counterterrorism forces have been providing advice, combat training and intelligence, including drone surveillance, to Filipino troops battling the Abu Sayyaf and other al-Qaida-linked militants in the south since 2002.
The June 19 fighting is believed to have killed about 10 militants near mountainous Patikul town, according to Zagala.
He said that although the soldiers died from friendly fire, "they're still a part of the operations against terrorists and we consider them as heroes."
In the clash, the marines fired 105 mm howitzer rounds to back up troops battling the Abu Sayyaf but one struck an army detachment instead, he said.
The mistake may have been committed because of combat stress, Zagala said.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, was organized in the early 1990s in Basilan province, near Sulu. With an unwieldy collective of preachers and outlaws, it vowed to wage jihad, or holy war, but lost its key leaders early in combat, sending it on a violent path of extremism and criminality.
Although the Abu Sayyaf's ranks have been largely decimated by a U.S.-backed Philippine anti-terrorism campaign, the militants have endured in a poor region with many guns and weak law enforcement.