MANILA, Philippines, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Two soldiers and five Abu Sayyaf rebels died in a fierce three-hour gun battle in the southern Philippine province of Basilan Island.
Senior Abu Sayyaf leader Juhaiber Alamsirul was among the rebels killed in the fighting in the countryside near the town of Sumisip.
Military sources also said five soldiers and an undetermined number of the estimated 30 rebels were wounded during the fighting in which troops overran the camp housing at least 50 people.
"The fighting was fierce and two of my soldiers were killed and five more are wounded and all have been evacuated to military hospital in Zamboanga," Brig. Gen. Nicanor Dolojan, commander of military forces in Basilan, said.
The military said it recovered bandoleers, police uniforms, three cell phones, hand-held radio transceivers and ammunition for M14 rifles.
Basilan, the largest and most northern of the Sulu Archipelago, lies between the Philippine island of Mindanao and Borneo. Mindanao is another of the country's areas where mainly Islamic militant groups are seeking independence or at least more autonomy.
Last week troops killed another senior Abu Sayyaf leader, Suhud Tanadjalin, in a raid at his hideout in Basilan's Tuburan town.
The latest military successes come as the government sits down in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for peace talks with one of the Philippine's oldest rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF, considered one of the main Islamic militant groups, came into existence in 1981 when a group split in 1981 from the Moro National Liberation Front which has been fighting for an independent Muslim homeland for around 40 years.
Some of the fiercest fighting between government troops and security forces has taken place between the MILF and Abu Sayyaf group.
In July 2007, 14 marines died -- 10 by beheading -- in fighting on Basilan Island. It remains unknown which group was responsible for the beheadings.
The face-to-face talks in Malaysia are the first by a special peace panel constituted by President Benigno Aquino since he won the national election in June and fulfils one of his key platform pledges -- to kick-start stalled negotiations with several militant groups.
During his inauguration, Aquino challenged rebel groups to call a cease-fire and sit down for peace talks.
"Are you prepared to put forth concrete solutions rather than pure criticism and finger-pointing? If it is peace you truly desire, then we are ready to call for an immediate cease-fire. Let us go back to the table and begin talking again," Aquino said.
In December, the government also made conciliatory gestures toward the Communist Party which acts as an umbrella organization several disaffected militant groups. More than 40 alleged insurgents were released from custody, lending hope to the restarting of talks, on hold since 2004, with the CP.
Formal discussions could go ahead early this year, likely in Norway, the Communist Party said, noting that the release was "a boost of goodwill for the forthcoming resumption of peace negotiations."
The detainees were arrested in February last year when they attended a health workshop in the coastal town Morong, east of Manila. Some were accused of being insurgents and others faced charges of helping rebels.
But the group, known as the Morong 43, claimed that the military had planted bomb-making materials and weapons on them and abused them while there were detained. They also said its members were denied access to lawyers and were held in isolation at a military camp.
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