Aided by a bloody surprise attack, Muslim extremists escaped from a hospital where they were surrounded by Philippine troops and fled into the jungle with several hostages, including three Americans, the military said today.
About 60 Abu Sayyaf rebels who were in a hospital on Basilan island used hostages as human shields to escape when 100 other guerrillas attacked soldiers from a nearby jungle, inflicting heavy casualties, said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan.
"Fresh terrorist troops under cover of darkness used diversionary tactics to distract the troops," Adan said. He said his soldiers limited their fire for fear of hitting hostages, who included the Americans seized a week ago along with 17 Filipinos at a resort 280 miles away across the Sulu Sea.
Last week, the rebels--with hostages in tow--had eluded a massive search until they clashed with army forces in the rugged jungles of Basilan on Friday. The fighting then spread to the streets of Lamitan, a town on the island, where the rebels took over the hospital Saturday.
The military said 12 soldiers have been killed since the fighting began, including an army captain in an armored personnel carrier hit by a rocket launcher, and an additional 97 have been wounded. Witnesses also reported guerrilla and civilian casualties.
Nine of the 20 hostages seized from the resort on Palawan island in the southwestern Philippines escaped over the weekend. Adan said the remainder, including the Americans, were with the rebels on Basilan island, 560 miles south of the capital, Manila.
He said the Abu Sayyaf also abducted a doctor, his wife and others when they invaded the Lamitan hospital Saturday. The army on Saturday rescued 10 fishermen who were abducted by the Abu Sayyaf from various islands in the past week, Adan said.
"There were no reports of any of the hostages held being injured. We don't know where they are going," Adan said. He said troops were pursuing the guerrillas on the island.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo repeated her no-ransom policy today. "We will negotiate for their unconditional release, but no ransom," she said.