Suspected Muslim militants attacked government troops guarding a school construction site in a rebel stronghold on Sunday, igniting a clash that killed 13 gunmen, two marines and at least one villager, a marine commander said.
About 50 gunmen attacked two marine detachments in hilly Talipao town in the southern Philippines' Sulu province at dawn, but were repulsed in two hours of fierce fighting that killed 13 suspected militants and two marines, marine commander Colonel Romeo Tanalgo said.
Six other military personnel were wounded before the gunmen split and withdrew into the forest, he said.
Villager Miriam Jalani said her nephew was killed in their Talipao house by stray gunfire, while four other relatives were wounded during the fighting. Several residents fled from their homes, hauling bags of clothes and food.
"We're afraid we'll also get caught in the crossfire," she said, fighting back tears, as she prepared to flee from her home.
The attackers were likely young Muslim militants trained by the notoriously violent Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked group regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the Philippines, and radical members of a larger rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, which also has a presence in the impoverished, far-flung community, military officials said.
The militants have formed a new, cult-like group led by a commander identified as Hatib Zacaria who wants to make a name through violence, said regional military spokesman Lt Colonel Randolph Cabangbang.
The marines have been monitoring the new group for about a year, marines officials said.
The group's commanders are called Awliyah, a word in the local Tausug dialect that pertains to religious leaders believed by their followers to possess supernatural powers, officials said.
The marines who came under attack in their two roadside detachments were guarding a school construction site and a road project.
"These are the people who are against development, that's why the mayor is mad," Tanalgo said of the militants, who were mostly armed with M16 and Garand rifles.