Manila: Government forces on Wednesday clashed with a heavily armed group in Sulu resulting in the seizure of a large firearms cache and the arrest of a suspected gang leader.

According to Major Causing, head of Task Group Panther, a composite team of soldiers and policemen had set out to arrest local clan chief Saudi Hamja on Wednesday morning in the village of Capual in the municipality of Omar. Hamja is believed to be behind a number of criminal activities on the island. A group of some 20 armed followers tried to prevent Hamja’s arrest and fought government forces. But they later on gave up the fight and abandoned their weapons resulting in the arrest of the kidnap gang leader.

According to Causing, the gunmen scampered in different directions after a brief exchange of gunfire with the security forces.

Aside from the capture of Hamja, troops recovered a cache of firearms and ammunition large enough to arm at least three squads of soldiers.

A 60mm mortar and a .50 calibre machine-gun was left by the gunmen as well as eight M16 assault rifles, seven M14 battle rifles, five Garand rifles, three American carbines as well as an AK 47 and an FN-FAL.

“A still unidentified civilian who was wounded during the firefight was immediately rushed to Luuk District Hospital for medical treatment,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command said in a statement.

Government troops are still thoroughly scouring and clearing the area.

According to authorities, Capual is being used as a safe haven as well as staging area for kidnap for ransom activities by various armed groups in Sulu including the Abu Sayyaf.

“Saudi Kahil Hamja is the leader of a lawless group in the area of Capual. He also has a standing warrant of arrest for arson and attempted murder,” Col Ferdinand Blasco, head of the armed forces civil relations service, said.

Proliferation of unregistered firearms is a major concern in Sulu and other areas of the country where there is an active insurgency. Most of these loose weapons fall in the hands of either criminal syndicates or armed groups such as the Abu Sayyaf.