Eighteeen soldiers and five Islamist militants were killed in a clash in the southern Philippines, the military said Sunday.

Fifty-three soldiers and 20 members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group were also wounded in the fighting in Tipo-Tipo town of Basilan province, 900 kilometres south of Manila, regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said.

He said the slain militants included a Moroccan national identified as Mohammad Khattab and a son of senior Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, who is wanted in the United States with a 5-million-dollar reward for his arrest.

Khattab was a bomb instructor and Islamic jihadist preacher. “He was trying to organize and unite local lawless armed groups ... to link with international terrorist groups,” Tan said.

“The enemies were on a higher ground and hit our soldiers with heavy firepower and improvised explosive devices,” Colonel Benedict Manquiquis, a spokesman for the military unit involved in the fighting, told a Manila radio station.

The military has been stepping up its offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, which are believed to be holding more than a dozen hostages on the nearby island of Jolo.

The Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the Philippines, as well as high-profile kidnappings for ransom involving foreign hostages.

The militants have threatened to execute three of the foreign hostages – two Canadians and a Norwegian – along with a Filipino woman they abducted on September 21 from a resort on the southern island of Samal Island.

On March 28, the group abducted 10 crew members of an Indonesian tugboat in seas between the provinces of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.

Five days later, it seized four ethnic-Chinese Malaysian sailors off the coast of Borneo, police said Saturday.

On Friday, Italian missionary Rolando del Torchio, 57, was freed after six months in captivity in Jolo. Military sources said more than 630,000 dollars was paid in ransom for his release.

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