(UPDATE 2) 7 dead as MNLF, Marines clash in Palawan

Posted at 08/19/2009 1:20 PM | Updated as of 08/20/2009 1:30 PM

MANILA - At least seven gunmen were killed when soldiers attacked an armed group occupying a tiny island in the western Philippines Wednesday, the military said.

Two gunmen were also captured after Marines stormed a school that the group used as a base in Sitio Marabon on Matanguli island, Balabac town, off the larger island of Palawan, when they refused to surrender, it said.

"We have one wounded on the government side. On the side of the lawless elements, we counted seven dead bodies," said Lt. Col. Yuri Persigan, commander of the Marine battalion that launched the operation in an Agence France-Presse report.

He said clearing operations were ongoing for other gunmen who had escaped.

Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, Philippine Navy spokesman, earlier said that members of Marine Battalion Landing Team-8 started advancing around 7 a.m. after the group led by Commander Abdulah Abdurajak refused to surrender to police and military authorities.

He said that before the clash, Abdurajak's group of about 30 armed men held hostage a fish trader and occupied Sitio Marabon. He said the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commander summoned his men after discovering that authorities were out to arrest him for a case of illegal possession of firearms.

"This group of Abdurajak has three standing warrants of arrest for illegal possession of firearms. He does not want to be arrested so he summoned members of his group and [occupied] Sitio Marabon and abducted residents," Arevalo told ABS-CBN News Channel in an interview.

He said the group has agreed to release the residents and the fish trader, but refused to surrender, which prompted the offensive.

Meanwhile, an earlier radio dzMM report said the clash has displaced at least 1,000 people, who fled their homes and went to nearby islets to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

Navy boats have circled the island, said Arevalo.

The 25 square kilometer (15.5 square mile) island is mostly Muslim and is populated by a few thousand people, the military said. It is very remote and lies near the sea border with Malaysia's Sabah island.

It was unclear what the group wanted, Arevalo said, but initial reports from the field said they extorted money from the locals and raided stores for supplies.

In the 1970s the MNLF waged a bloody guerrilla campaign for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines, but ceased hostilities in 1996 in exchange for the creation of an MNLF-dominated autonomous area.

A splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) pressed on with the insurgency but has also opened peace negotiations with Manila despite frequent clashes with troops. With a report from Agence France Presse