At least five suspected militants linked with a pro-Islamic State group were killed, and an enemy commander and at least 13 others were captured, after a fierce gunbattle with government forces in the southern Philippines, the military said Friday.
Nine combatants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were also wounded in the encounter on Thursday in Lambayong, a town in Sultan Kudarat province, officials said.
The army initiated the fighting, which was aimed at flushing out Tugali Guiamal Galmak, a leader of a BIFF faction, said Col. Joel Mamon, commander of the 601st Brigade.
“Tugali is an armed lawless group commander and a former member of the Pentagon kidnap for ransom group operating in central Mindanao,” Mamon said.
Tugali was among the enemy fighters who surrendered.
“Five enemy combatants were KIA,” according to a military incident report on the gunbattle.
Composed of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels who had turned to banditry, Pentagon was a gang of armed militants who once operated in Mindanao. It specialized in kidnappings-for-ransom, but had also lent fighters to other groups that would eventually form the nexus of a group allied with the IS, military intelligence said.
Mamon said the troops clashed with Tugali’s group Thursday, leading to the rebel casualties and the capture of the militant leader. There were no casualties on the government side.
The BIFF, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, is a breakaway faction of the MILF, the country’s former largest separatist group, which ceased to be a rebel group after it signed a peace deal with Manila several years ago.
The fighting occurred against the backdrop of intense debates over an anti-terror law that the Philippine Congress passed earlier this week. As of late Friday, President Rodrigo Duterte had yet to sign the legislation, which amends the country’s Human Security Act to make it tougher for would-be terrorists.
The legislation, however, is opposed by human rights advocates who allege that Duterte may use the law to crack down on critics and opposition members questioning his administration’s war on drugs, which has left thousands dead since he assumed power.
On Friday, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon sought to allay widespread fears that the new law would be used against political opponents of the Duterte administration. He noted that many terror groups still operate in the south, despite the military routing pro-Islamic State militants who took over the southern city of Marawi for five months in 2017.
“Mindanao has been a victim of terrorism in various iterations,” Esperon, a former military chief, said. “Be it through suicide bombings or through the proliferation of Dawlah Islamiya and other extremist groups,” he said, using the local term for the IS.
The fact that foreign militants had managed to infiltrate the south “is proof that our present laws have failed to address the problems of modern terrorism,” he said.