MANILA -- Philippine marines clashed with nearly 200 Al Qaeda-linked rebels yesterday, and officials said six government troops were killed and 19 wounded in the biggest battle in a monthlong US-backed offensive.
The fighting with Abu Sayyaf militants erupted at dawn near the mountainous town of Patikul on Jolo island, where troops sighted gunmen they believed to be protecting some of Southeast Asia's most - wanted men -- including Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani, military officials said.
Major General Eugenio Cedo, commander of the military's Western Mindanao Command, said several Abu Sayyaf rebels also were believed to be wounded or killed in the two-hour clash.
``We've recovered clothes and bandoliers of ammunition stained with blood," Cedo told reporters.
A military officer, who asked not to be named, said about 30 marines started the assault by hurling grenades at more than 20 Abu Sayyaf rebels who were eating in the jungle.
The grenade blasts may have killed many of the rebels, but they also alerted a group of nearly 200 guerrillas nearby, many of whom opened fire, the officer said by telephone.
After the gun battle, two MG520 attack helicopters fired rockets at militants fleeing toward Jolo's thickly forested mountainous heartland. Other troops were deployed to help pursue the rebels, Cedo said.
Cedo said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sent him a message via cellphone saying, ``My prayers for our troops, please disseminate to our troops."
Washington has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of Janjalani and his commanders, who have been charged with several attacks, including a 2004 bombing that gutted a ferry and killed 116 people.
Also believed to be in the area were Indonesian militants Umar Patek and Dulmatin, who goes by one name. The two are among the alleged masterminds of the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people.
The Indonesians, also on Washington's most-wanted terror list, are believed to have fled to the southern Philippines shortly after the attacks.
Military commanders believe Janjalani, his key commanders, and the Indonesians were near Patikul because of the number of gunmen who appeared to be ringing the rebel leaders in three layers of security, Cedo said.
An Abu Sayyaf commander, Abu Sulaiman, said last week that the militants have dealt heavy casualties to government troops on Jolo and were not intimidated by US backing of military assaults.
Abu Sayyaf, which the military estimates to have about 400 armed men in Jolo and outlying provinces, is notorious for carrying out beheadings, kidnappings for ransom, and other crimes.
US and Australian officials have been deeply concerned by reported terrorist training by Indonesian and Filipino militants in the southern Philippines.
The Philippine military says that key training camps run by Jemaah Islamiyah have been destroyed, and that the militants mostly are on the run.