Philippines troops and rebels in street clashes

Deadly street battles erupted in a southern Philippines town today as a self-styled ‘‘suicide squad’’ of Muslim extremists invaded a hospital and church, seizing patients, doctors and a priest.

Abu Sayyaf junior leader Abu Suleiman claimed he was holding 200 hostages in Lamitan, which was sealed off by troops, but the military said only 20 were being held.

Meanwhile, other Abu Sayyaf rebels who raided a beach resort six days ago and took 20 hostages including three Americans clashed with troops in nearby dense jungle. Local reports said one hostage, a resort security guard, was rescued.

Suleiman phoned local radio station Radio Mindanao Network to say he was commanding a ‘‘suicide squad’’ that had taken control of the hospital in Lamitan, on the southern island of Basilan. He threatened to kill hostages unless the government called off its offensive.

Witnesses said the assault involved between 40 and 60 Abu Sayyaf terrorists, and rebel snipers were strafing troops from atop the church and hospital. Civilians fleeing the area said at least one building at the scene of the fighting was in flames.

‘‘They attacked at 4am (2100 BST Friday) when we were guarding the school,’’ said Esmeraldo Supil, a militiaman who was shot in the leg and was being treated in a hospital in the nearby provincial capital Isabela. ‘‘We returned fire.’’

Lamitan Mayor Inocente Ramos said ‘‘there is heavy fighting and many killed. There are big explosions.’’

He said Abu Sayyaf members invaded a hospital and a church in Lamitan, one of two Christian towns on the predominantly Muslim island in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. He said they were holding a priest and several patients at St Peter’s hospital.

Bidong Ismael, a town councillor, told RMN that he saw one Abu Sayyaf leader, Commander Yusuf, killed in the fighting along with one soldier and a militiaman.

‘‘There are explosions going on now,’’ he said.

Ramos said soldiers and police had apparently surrounded the church and hospital but were under heavy fire from rooftop snipers.

A police jeep, an army armoured car and a truck were hit in front of the church and are immobilised, said RMN reporter Jun Ramos, reporting from the scene under heavy fire.

Thousands of civilians clogged roads leading out of Lamitan, home to 10,000-20,000 people, to flee the fighting.

Less than six miles away, soldiers backed by helicopter gunships fought a running gun battle through rugged jungle with an estimated 100-man contingent of the Abu Sayyaf, the military said.

As of late Friday, two soldiers, several civilians and some guerrillas were reported dead, and 14 soldiers injured, as the army fought to rescue the 20 hostages including three Americans seized from the Dos Palmas beach resort in the western Philippines last Sunday.

But fighting continued throughout the night and casualties were expected to rise.

RMN reported the military rescued one hostage, resort security guard Eldrin Morales, and he was airlifted to the nearby city of Zamboanga. He apparently sustained injuries below his ear.

Teresa Ganzon, one of the hostages, spoke on Radio Mindanao Network periodically early today, asking the government to halt its offensive.

‘‘We are with the suicide squad of the Abu Sayyaf.

"There are many innocent lives who have nothing to do with the situation and they are at risk. Please, please ... find another solution and not a military solution,’’ Ganzon said, apparently in tears.

It was not clear whether she and the three American hostages were with the rebels in Lamitan or in the jungle.

Unlike yesterday, no gunshots were audible in the background.

The sporadic but often intense clashes began just before dawn yesterday when a leader of the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas called RMN, claiming two captives had been shot and threatening to kill the rest.

There was no confirmation of injuries to the hostages.

Several civilians in the area were hit by shrapnel from an errantly fired grenade.

Soldiers who pursued the fleeing Abu Sayyaf through the thick undergrowth, where visibility was estimated at only 15 yards, found the bodies of an unspecified number of rebels.

Military officials said they believed others had been dragged away.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Edilberto Adan said late yesterday that one group of rebels were in a valley about four miles from the shore.

Troops were trying to cut off an escape route and surround them.

‘‘The mission is clear: to maintain contact so as to prevent them from escaping. We are not here to disengage. We want to engage,’’ Adan said.

It was unclear how many hostages were being dragged along by the rebels, who earlier claimed they split their captives into at least two groups.

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