At least five soldiers were killed and more than two dozen others wounded in a gunbattle with Abu Sayyaf militants who were holding hostages in the southern Philippines, the military said on Saturday.
The incident was the deadliest for Philippine soldiers in the restive south so far this year.
The clash broke out Friday afternoon in Lianga, a village in Patikul town on remote Jolo island, as patrolling soldiers encountered nearly 50 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf fighters, regional military spokesman Col. Gerry Besana said.
The fighting lasted about two hours, leaving 23 soldiers wounded apart from the five dead.
“The enemies were holding hostages at the time of encounter. Until now, there’s an ongoing pursuit operation,” Besana said, adding the militants were led by Commander Almuder Yaddah.
The bodies of the dead soldiers would be airlifted to nearby Zamboanga City while the wounded were being treated at a military hospital, he said.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most violent of several Muslim rebel factions operating in the southern Philippines.
It was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in the country, including a ferry bombing in Manila Bay that killed more than 100 people in 2004.
Currently, the militants are believed to be holding 12 hostages, including three Indonesians, one Vietnamese, one Dutch national and seven Filipinos. They beheaded an elderly German captive last year after his government failed to fork over ransom, while two Canadians were also killed in 2016.
Another Abu Sayyaf faction led by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the extremist group Islamic State in the southern Philippines, engaged government forces in a five-month battle that destroyed much of Marawi city, also in the south. The vicious firefights killed 930 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians, officials said.