At least 12 people have been killed, including seven government soldiers, in fresh clashes as military steps up its offensive against rebels in the southern Philippines, officials say.

The fighting on Saturday in Sulu province's coastal town of Patikul between the military and members of Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked group, also wounded nine other marines and 10 fighters.

 

Jose Canbre, a local military leader, said that his team of soldiers ran into an Abu Sayyaf unit in the village of Tugas as government forces tracked members of the group suspected of recent kidnappings.

Domingo Tutaan, a military spokesman, told the AFP news agency: "It was an early-morning firefight. Our forces were tracking those responsible for some recent kidnappings in the area, including the wife of a soldier."

The social worker wife of one soldier had been freed unharmed by the Abu Sayyaf on nearby Basilan island two days after her abduction, Tutaan said.

Reinforcement troops were hunting down the fleeing fighters, who were believed led by Julaswan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf leader blamed for kidnappings for ransom, including of a Jordanian journalist and two European tourists, who are still being held by the group.

A son of Sawadjaan was believed to have been killed in the clashes, Canbre added.

Meanwhile, Philippine troops and police special forces have killed one of two gunmen who were trying to extort money Saturday from a restaurant in Sulu's capital town of Jolo, Cenabre said.

Armed with pistols, the two men shot it out with government forces. One was shot in the head and died while being brought to a hospital while the other was captured.

He also said investigators were trying to determine whether the two were members or had ties with the Abu Sayyaf, which is also notorious for extortion.

Abu Sayyaf is blamed for the worst attacks in the country, including the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay.

Philippine security forces, backed by US troops, have stepped up offensives against Abu Sayyaf, which has also threatened to attack US-financed development projects.

Source: Agencies