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Philippine choppers, troops assault the Abu Sayyaf

By JIM GOMEZ
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 1:47 AM

MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine military aircraft fired rockets and dropped assault troops Thursday on a southern island where an Abu Sayyaf commander wanted by Washington has been sighted with his men, officials said.

Military officials launched the assault at dawn after detecting the presence of Khair Mundos, his deputy Puruji Indama and about 15 Abu Sayyaf fighters in a mangrove area on Sacol island near Zamboanga city, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said.

The al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, which has 410 fighters, has been blamed for deadly bomb attacks, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings. It was founded in the early 1990s on Basilan island, near Zamboanga city, a bustling region 540 miles (860 kilometers) south of Manila where American counterterrorism troops have been stationed since 2002.

Washington has blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist group and blamed it for deadly attacks on American troops and civilians in the southern Philippines.

Cabangbang said it was not immediately clear if Mundos or his men were killed or captured, adding the assault was continuing about nine hours after it started at dawn in an area that was far from communities.

Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat said the attack was so secretive he and other officials were not notified, prompting him to call Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to check what was going on.

The State Department announced a $500,000 reward in 2009 for the killing or capture of Mundos, who U.S. authorities said has worked as a financier of the Abu Sayyaf. The Basilan-based Mundos has led one of four key Abu Sayyaf factions in the south.

Indama has been linked by the military to beheadings and kidnappings for ransom in Zamboanga and Basilan.

A confidential government security report seen by The Associated Press last month said the Abu Sayyaf has been hounded by funding problems, kidnapping even poor victims to get ransom and using cheaper but more lethal bombs than in past years.

The militants have also grappled with the loss of several top leaders and factionalism, but remain a key security threat. They staged at least 11 kidnappings last year, enabling them to raise $704,000 in ransom, the report said.

© 2011 The Associated Press