Heroes Day clashes: 15 soldiers, at least 4 Abu Sayyaf members killed

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — As the rest of the country commemorated National Heroes Day on Monday, 15 soldiers laid down their lives after a series of clashes in Sulu. At least four members of the Abu Sayyaf were killed.

The firefight broke out at Sitio Kan Jalul, Brgy. Maligay in Patikul at around 4:30 p.m., according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

An army officer was among the fatalities.

AFP spokesman BGen. Restituto Padilla told CNN Philippines on Tuesday that the government forces and the Abu Sayyaf had a close encounter, following the troops' discovery of the rebels' camp.

"Hindi natin po hininto at nilubayan ang pagtugis at hinabol po ng ating mga tropa sa pagnanais na magkaroon po tayo ng maayos na engkwentro at malagas po ang grupo na yan," Padila said.

Translation: "We did not stop from the search and our troops chased the Abu Sayyaf hoping to get a close encounter and cause the group to fall out."

A team from the Philippine Army's 35th Infantry Battalion and 21st Infantry Battalion fought with around 120 members of the Abu Sayyaf that day.

Maj. Filemon Tan, spokesman for the military's Western Mindanao Command, said the Abu Sayyaf's mastery of the terrain caused the heavy blow to the government side.

He also said the troops encountered the group led by Radullan Sahiron, who is among the most wanted terrorists of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation, with a $1 million bounty on his head.

The bloody firefight was the third in a series of major clashes since Friday, Tan said.

30 ASG killed since Friday

Sporadic skirmishes continue in Sulu as of Tuesday morning.

At least 30 Abu Sayyaf fighters have so far been killed in heightened military operations since Friday, Tan announced in a news conference, with a note that the number is still being verified. Earlier that day, Padilla said the death toll is at 27.

At least 29 soldiers and 11 Abu Sayyaf fighters have been wounded since Friday, Tan said.

The rebels suffered the most casualties in Friday's encounter with the 4th Scout Ranger Battalion and the 15th Scout Ranger Company - 21 ASG killed, 11 wounded. Some 17 soldiers were also wounded that day.

Two skirmishes erupted over the weekend, killing five Abu Sayyaf members, Tan said. No fatality on the government side.

Heroes Day's clashes killed four Abu Sayyaf members in Talipao, Sulu, Tan said.

Fallen heroes

AFP released the list of names of the 15 slain soldiers Tuesday afternoon, because their families have already been notified. They are:

2nd Lieutenant Ernan P. Gusto, 33, married, Isabela

Staff Sergeant Ruel A. Catubay, 39, married, Zamboanga Sibugay

Sergeant Jay Erwin L. Almohallas, 38, married, Lanao del Norte

Corporal Omar M. Raddulan, 41, married, Lanao del Norte

Corporal Ronald A. Galoniga, 33, married, Lanao del Norte

Corporal Elid S. Ismael, 49, married, Jolo, Sulu

Corporal Salik H. Mandangan, 31, married, Lanao del Norte

Private First Class Nestor C. Bacaling, 26, single, Lanao del Norte

Private First Class Jison B. Falcasantos, 28, single, Zamboanga City

Private First Class Gerald A. Yubal, 29, single, Zamboanga Sibugay

Private First Class Dhendo A. Dujo, 32, married, Zamboanga Sibugay

Private First Class Roselito A. Arnoco, 29, single, Zamboanga del Sur

Private First Class Glend C. Rasma, 24, single, North Cotabato

Private First Class Rogelio D. Vincoy, 28, married, Zamboanga del Norte

Private First Class Jonas A. Lumayan, 23, single, Zamboanga del Sur

"They are truly genuine heroes of our country who have offered the supreme sacrifice for God, Country and Our People," Padilla said.

Video: Families of killed soldiers mourn

Despite suffering the most number of casualties under President Rodrigo Duterte's administration on Monday, Tan said nothing can dampen the troops' fighting spirit.

"The momentum is on our side and we will continue to fight until we accomplish the mission," Tan said.

He also denied that the soldiers were not able to fight a good fight. "Umabot nga higit isang oras ang laban [The battle even lasted for more than an hour]," he said in a text message sent to CNN Philippines.

AFP to retaliate

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said it is "unfortunate" that many government soldiers have lost their lives in the battle against terrorists.

"Definitely the President is focused on making sure that the threat of the Abu Sayyaf Group should be terminated as soon as possible," Abella said.

The President earlier directed government troops to "search and destroy" the ASG, following the beheading of an 18-year-old hostage in Jolo.

Read: Who are the Abu Sayyaf?

Echoing earlier pronouncements by Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Abella said government troops are on "full force" against terror groups and five additional battalions have been deployed to Sulu to combat the ASG.

Tan also said the government is sending more troops, equipment and firepower to Mindanao. He said "it will just be a matter of time" until the mission is accomplished.

While the soldiers grieve for their fallen comrades, AFP Public Affairs Office Chief Ed Arevalo said they just became more determined to fight the Abu Sayyaf.

"That the ultimate sacrifice and acts of gallantry become their driving force to hit back once again on the terrorists," the AFP said in a statement.

AFP Chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya said they will not stop until the ASG are eradicated.

"There may still be casualties along the way as we advance this solemn duty to eradicate these bandits and terrorists of 25 years, but we will not stop until we rid our country of the menace this ASG brings to the world," Visaya said.

He said Philippine flags in military camps are flown at half-mast today to mourn the soldiers' deaths.

CNN Philippines' Senior Correspondents David Santos and Ina Andolong contributed to this report.