MANILA (Reuters) - A Filipino Islamist militant leader, who has a $5 million American bounty on his head, was wounded but managed to escape in an army offensive that killed eight rebels in the southern Philippines, a military official said on Tuesday.
Isnilon Hapilon, a known leader of the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group, was hit in the military raid but his followers were able to drag him to safety before soldiers could seize control of the rebels’ jungle base, said Colonel Carlito Galvez, brigade commander.
“We have information that Hapilon was wounded during the encounter,” Galvez told reporters. “Our boys found two bodies but we were told six more Abu Sayyaf members were also killed.”
Hapilon, 47, is the only one of five Abu Sayyaf leaders still alive. They were all indicted in the United States for the kidnapping of American nationals in the Philippines in 2001.
The Abu Sayyaf seized three Americans from a beach resort on Palawan island in May 2001. One was executed while another died in crossfire between Filipino troops and Abu Sayyaf militants.
In Monday’s clash near Tipo-tipo town on Basilan island, three soldiers were slightly wounded when about 100 troops battled 30 Islamist militants, the first major clash since October 2011 when about 20 soldiers were killed.
The 2011 clash had threatened to scuttle peace talks between the Manila government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). A year later, the two sides signed a preliminary deal to end 40 years of conflict.
The military said they have been tracking Hapilon since October 2012 when he was spotted visiting relatives in Lantawan town after he returned from nearby Jolo island, another Islamist militant stronghold.
Before the assault at dawn on Monday, Galvez said Hapilon was with another Abu Sayyaf local commander, Furuji Indama, and two Indonesians from Jemaah Islamiah, another al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militant group.
Galvez said the assault on the Abu Sayyaf base on Monday had pre-empted the militants’ plan to disrupt mid-term elections next month. Materials used for making crude bombs and sniper rifle parts were recovered in the militants’ base, he added.
Reporting By Manuel Mogato Editing by Jeremy Laurence