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Philippine rebel clashes end, 12 dead

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines--The death toll in fighting between Muslim rebels and soldiers in the southern Philippines has risen to 12, officials in the area said Saturday after the prolonged shootout had ended.

Government forces launched the operation Friday to capture two top leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group blamed for beheadings and kidnappings, but failed to apprehend either man.

“Puruji Indama and Isnilon Hapilon are on the run,” Brigadier-General Carlito Galvez, the military commander for Basilan island, told reporters.

Galvez said the last firefight between about 80 gunmen and soldiers ceased on Basilan, around 900 kilometers (560 miles) south of the Philippine capital Manila on Friday night, but the operation was ongoing.

Captain Jefferson Mamauag, a local Philippine army spokesman, said seven Abu Sayyaf fighters had been killed, with authorities now searching for their burial sites.

Two soldiers were shot dead and 28 others were wounded by grenade blasts, Mamauag added, correcting an earlier military report that put their casualties at two dead and 29 wounded.

And he said three members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main Muslim guerrilla force in the region, were also killed Friday, their bodies as yet unrecovered.

The MILF militants were fighting alongside Philippine troops, according to Alton Angeles, municipal planning officer of the town where most of the fighting occurred, under their top Basilan leader, Hamza Sapanton.

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