MANILA, July 26, 2012 (AFP) - Philippine forces clashed with Muslim extremists on a southern island Thursday, leaving seven soldiers and four militants dead, the military said.
Elite rangers battled members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group on the troubled southern island of Basilan, with three soldiers and two insurgents also wounded in the clash.
The Abu Sayyaf gunmen had initially attacked rubber plantation workers in the island and the military had rushed to the scene to repel them, said regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang.
Helicopter gunships were deployed to support the troops, he said.
"The fighting is taking place in a forested area. Our troops are engaged in an intense running gunbattle," Cabangbang told AFP.
The same group of Abu Sayyaf fighters had launched similar attacks in the same part of Basilan in previous weeks including an ambush that left six farm workers dead and 22 wounded on July 11, he said.
The plantation workers' cooperative operating in the area had previously received extortion letters purportedly from the Abu Sayyaf demanding payment of over $1,000 a month in exchange for not being harmed.
The heavily-forested island of Basilan has long been a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which was founded in the 1990s with seed money from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The group has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in Philippine history including deadly bombings and kidnappings for ransom, often targetting foreigners and Christians.
About 600 US troops have been rotating through the southern Philippines for a decade to help train local troops in hunting the Abu Sayyaf. However the Americans are barred from taking part in actual combat.