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Muslim militants kill 9 Philippine troops in ambush

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine military suffered heavy casualties on Thursday after Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf ambushed a convoy on the remote southern island of Jolo, the army said.

Major-General Ruben Rafael said nine soldiers were killed and two were wounded when they were attacked by dozens of rebels while on their way to a public market to buy food.

“We’ve sent reinforcement to evacuate our casualties,” Rafael told reporters as helicopters flew to the scene of the fighting to ferry troops and bring back the wounded.

The tropical isle, a base for Muslim militants in the largely Catholic country, has seen an escalation in violence after the army started collecting unlicensed guns from civilians.

It was the second deadly ambush in as many months in the south and marked a deterioration of the situation on Jolo.

An army spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres, said about 100 rebels from the Abu Sayyaf and a rogue faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were believed to be behind the attack, retaliating for losses in an earlier clash.

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On Wednesday, soldiers killed four Muslim rebels in a brief gunbattle in nearby Parang town, where a soldier was also killed and five were wounded.

But, the mainstream MNLF, which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, claimed it was behind the ambush, saying it was retaliation for the deaths of five people during an army offensive a day earlier.

“It was not the Abu Sayyaf,” Hatimil Hassan, the deputy chairman of the MNLF, said on local TV. “It was our troops. It was the military’s fault. They started it all.”

In July, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim separatist group, killed 14 Marines in an attack on the nearby island of Basilan. Ten of the soldiers were beheaded but the MILF, which is meant to be talking peace with Manila, has denied its members mutilated the troops.

The military also blames members of the Abu Sayyaf for the decapitations. Due to family ties on Jolo and Basilan, there are close links between the Abu Sayyaf, the MNLF and the MILF and sometimes an overlap in membership.

The Philippine government wants to seal a peace deal with the MILF but has sworn to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed for the Philippines’ worst terror attack -- a ferry bombing that killed more than 100 people in 2004.