Government security forces have killed at least 15 suspected pro-Islamic State (IS) Filipino militants in air and artillery strikes in the southern Philippines, the military said Monday.
Thousands of families fled during the weekend offensive that, according to the military, targeted a large bomb-making factory operated by the IS-aligned rebel group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Eight other BIFF militants were wounded in the strikes while a suspected bomb expert and his wife were arrested during the pre-dawn offensive on Sunday in rebel-controlled territories in the marshlands of Maguindanao province, military officials said.
The military’s “surgical airstrike” wiped out the factory where the rebels were building improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the military said.
“With the successful operations, government security forces were able to negate death, destruction, and panic [that] the produced IEDs could have caused the peaceful communities,” said Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the military task force.
“Follow-on operations ensured that the terrorists were confined in the area and prevented the spill over to nearby towns,” he said.
Several home-made bombs were also recovered, Sobejana said.
“15 were killed in action, eight wounded and one bomb expert and his wife were arrested in the terrorist lair,” he said, adding that there were no casualties on the government side.
The gunmen traded fire with elements of the 33rd Infantry Battalion and a unit of the police Special Action Force. After an hour-long gun battle, two suspects surrendered. They were identified as Anwar Ali, 22, and his wife, Asnaya Ali, 20.
Confiscated from them were a sniper rifle and an assault rifle, infantry chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said.
“The suspects threw their weapons and improvised bombs in the water when we blocked their escape,” Cabunoc said. “Anwar is also known as Abu Omar, a bomb expert in the group.”
Going after Abu Turaife
Sobejana said the target of the offensive was the group of Abu Turaife, one of the top leaders of the BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that has signed a peace deal with Manila and is negotiating for a regional autonomy law.
Turaife’s group split from the MILF when it signed a peace deal with Manila three years ago.
He broke away from the rebel chain-of-command and led his followers, who numbered in the few dozens, to press on with the fight. He has pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send guerrillas to fight in Marawi, where overall Islamic State Filipino leader Isnilon Hapilon was killed last year after a five-month occupation of the city.
The Marawi fighting was considered to be the fiercest in recent years. It led to the destruction of the lakeside Muslim city, and the deaths of some 1,200 people, mostly militants.
In April, the BIFF lost 13 fighters in days of clashes with the military following their harassment against government militiamen and vital installations in the region.
The military concentrated its combat operations in Maguindanao and nearby provinces after intelligence reports said militants were recruiting for another siege similar to Marawi. Several foreigners from the region and the Middle East have also been arrested since December.
The assault was coordinated with MILF, and should not affect relations with the group, which last month was in danger of collapsing after nine MILF members helping the army fight the IS linked groups in the south were killed in a mistaken anti-drugs operation.
“This operation was conducted with full coordination with the MILF coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities,” chief government peace adviser Jesus Dureza said in a statement.
“The targeted areas were also confined to locations that are far from communities,” he said.
Both the government and the MILF have also agreed to cooperate against IS-inspired groups, and would work to calm the residents in some areas in the south that “they are not the target of the operation.”
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.