Manila, Philippines: At least seven Filipino marines and five militants were killed in a clash Saturday as the military launched an offensive against Al Qaida-linked gunmen who have been blamed for recent kidnappings and of trying to sabotage a road project in the southern Philippines.

Nine other marines and about 10 Abu Sayyaf militants were wounded in the gunbattle that raged for an hour in a sparsely populated village on the fringes of the coastal town of Patikul in Sulu province, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said.

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

A son of Sawadjaan was believed to have been killed in the firefight, said Sulu’s military commander, Col. Jose Cenabre, adding that the marines initially had difficulty returning fire because the dozens of militants took cover near a row of houses.

Sawadjaan’s men have been accused of last week’s kidnapping of a Filipino marine’s wife who works in a Sulu provincial hospital. The gunmen also recently abducted two government employees working on a road project in Patikul. The two were freed last week but it was not clear whether ransom was paid, officials said.

While Abu Sayyaf abductions still occur, they are far fewer today than the massive kidnappings that terrorized Sulu and outlying provinces in the early 2000s, when the group had many commanders and strong ties with terrorist organisations, including Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

US-backed military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, but it remains a national security threat. Washington has listed the group as a terrorist organisation.

Philippine troops and police special forces, meanwhile, killed one of two gunmen who were trying to extort money on 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, Cenabre said. He said investigators were trying to determine whether the two were members or had ties with the Abu Sayyaf, which is also notorious for extortion.