MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- Philippine troops launched an assault against Abu Sayyaf extremists in the south early Friday and sporadic clashes have left at least three militants dead and 20 soldiers wounded, officials said.
Some of the more than 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen took cover in a school during an initial gunbattle in a rural community on Basilan Island but it was not clear if they took hostages or if they have left, said army brigade commander Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez. The school was supposed to be empty because students were on a summer break.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said about 200 soldiers were deployed before dawn to assault a group of gunmen led by Abu Sayyaf commander Puruji Indama in Basilan's Unkaya Pukan township.
Galvez said troops moved in after Indama and his men threatened and tried to extort money from a key road project in Basilan, a predominantly Muslim province and birthplace of the brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and bombings.
Troops initially clashed with a group of more than 30 Abu Sayyaf armed fighters, who were later reinforced by two separate groups of more than 30 other militants. Three militants were believed killed in initial fighting and two more were critically wounded in a second gunbattle, Galvez told The Associated Press by telephone as he directed the assault from Basilan.
Three soldiers were wounded by gunfire and 17 others sustained minor injuries due to shrapnel and flying debris in the two clashes, he said.
Government troops could not advance rapidly toward the fighters because they had to pass near communities of a larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with which the government recently signed a peace agreement. Under a ceasefire accord, troops have to coordinate their presence with the Moro rebel front when pursuing the smaller Abu Sayyaf to avoid accidental clashes.
"We're still pursuing the Abu Sayyaf and there are sporadic fighting and sniping," Galvez said.
It was not immediately clear what happened to Indama, a young but ruthless militant, who has been wanted by Philippine authorities for his alleged involvement in deadly bombings and kidnappings. Among those kidnapped was a former Australian soldier, who was freed last year after 15 months of jungle captivity and reported payment of ransom. Indama also has been blamed for the beheadings of 10 marines in Basilan in 2007, a widely condemned atrocity.
"We're continuing the pressure," Zagala said of the ongoing assault.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, was founded in 1991 on Basilan with reported funds and training from Asian and Middle Eastern radical groups, including al-Qaida. It came to U.S. attention in 2001 when it kidnapped three Americans, one of whom was beheaded, along with dozens of Filipinos.
The group is still holding a number of hostages in the vast jungles of nearby Sulu province, including two European bird watchers, who were kidnapped two years ago.
Zagala said Friday's operation is unrelated to a search for suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were believed to have abducted a 28-year-old Chinese tourist last week from a Malaysian resort off Borneo island then took her by speedboat to the southern Philippines.
AP writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.