ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — At least five Muslim guerrillas were killed Friday in a battle with Philippine troops on Basilan island, where two Americans and a Philippine nurse are being held hostage, a Philippine military commander said.
The firefight came a day after the Philippines and the U.S. opened a training exercise aimed at wiping out the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, which authorities say may have ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
In Manila, the capital, two lawyers asked the Supreme Court to stop the exercise, arguing that the Philippine constitution contains no provision for U.S. troops to be deployed "in a war zone area" such as Basilan.
Philippine troops engaged about 20 rebels in a 15-minute fight on Basilan across from Zamboanga on the southwestern tip of Mindanao island, said Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu.
"I would say that this group is the blocking force of the main Abu Sayyaf group that is holding the hostages," Cimatu said. "If it is . . . probably we will have some positive developments in the near future."
Guerrillas who escaped the fighting were being pursued by the troops, who suffered no injuries, Cimatu said.
The guerrillas have eluded about 7,000 soldiers deployed to Basilan since an Abu Sayyaf kidnapping spree began in May. The guerrillas still hold Christian missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and nurse Deborah Yap of Basilan.