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14 militants, 1 Philippine marine dead in clash

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A battle between Philippine marines and Muslim militants, who launched a surprise attack to regain control of a captured jungle training encampment, has left 14 Abu Sayyaf fighters and one marine dead, officials said Wednesday.

The heavy exchanges of rifle grenade and mortar fire erupted late Tuesday in a mountain area off southern Sulu province's Patikul town then eased into sporadic exchanges of sniper shots past midnight, with reinforcement marines beating back about 100 Abu Sayyaf attackers, military officials said.

At least 14 militants were killed and several others were wounded in the three-hour fight, marine spokesman Capt. Ryan Lacuesta said, citing intelligence reports. One marine was killed and 19 others were wounded, eight of them seriously, he said.

"They tried to overwhelm our marines to regain their camp but we have back-up forces nearby and close air support," Lacuesta said. "They resorted to mortar and M203 rifle grenade fire so our wounded mostly were hit by shrapnel."

The well-fortified Abu Sayyaf encampment, concealed by shrubs and trees in the jungle, had about 50 huts and could accommodate about 100 people. It has been used by the militants to train recruits, for meetings and as a staging area for attacks and kidnappings, marine commander Brig. Gen. Martin Pinto said.

Lacuesta said at least three Abu Sayyaf factions combined to stage the attack, but reinforcement marines, backed up by helicopter gunships and artillery fire, overwhelmed the militants, who withdrew in different directions, some dragging their dead and wounded.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said they expect militants, including those under local Abu Sayyaf commander Radullan Sahiron, to launch retaliatory attacks.

Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, has had links with foreign terrorist networks, including al-Qaida. It is notorious for bombings, extortion, kidnappings and beheadings, and has targeted foreign missionaries and tourists in the south.

An estimated 300 militants, who are split into several factions, still hold several hostages in their Sulu jungle bases, including two European bird watchers, who were abducted two years ago. A Chinese tourist and a Filipino hotel worker who were recently kidnapped by the militants from a dive resort in Malaysia's Sabah state have also been brought an Abu Sayyaf encampment in Sulu, Philippine security officials said.

Huge ransom payments have allowed the militants to survive and finance attacks despite on and off U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives.

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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