UPDATED at 11:50 a.m. ET on 2020-07-31
At least 10 suspected militants and two government troops were killed during a major firefight in the southern Philippines on Wednesday as the military hunted for a senior leader of an Islamic State-linked group, officials said.
At least 13 soldiers were wounded on the government side, including one who was in critical condition at a military hospital, a Philippine Army spokesman said.
The two-hour-long shootout with suspected members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters militant group broke out as the army’s 57th Infantry Battalion launched an operation in marshlands near Datu Salibo, a town in Maguindanao province, officials said. The troops were searching for Ustadz Karialian, a BIFF commander also known as Imam Minimbang.
“Two soldiers, 10 enemy KIA [Killed in Action],” Lt. Col. Anhouvic Atilano, the spokesman for the Army’s 6th Division, told BenarNews when asked for information about the death toll from Wednesday’s clash.
The shootout was the deadliest clash in the south since mid-April, when 11 Army soldiers died and 14 others were injured in a gunbattle with Abu Sayyaf militants on Jolo Island.
“We used two helicopter gunships and artillery fire to drive away the rebels because they have so many reinforcements,” Atilano said, referring to the incident in Datu Salibo.
The target of the operation there, Karialan, was not among the enemy fatalities, Atilano said, citing an intelligence report from the field.
The latest incident occurred weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte signed a new anti-terrorism law aimed at boosting the law enforcement fight against militants in the south. Human rights groups and activists, however, have criticized some of the provisions of the new law as having a potentially chilling effect on free speech. They say the government could use it to go after critics of the Duterte administration.
The BIFF is a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), at one time the country’s leading separatist group, which signed a peace pact with the Philippine government to settle for an autonomous region in the south.
The BIFF is also one of several groups in the volatile southern Philippines that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
Despite that pledge BIFF guerrillas did not join other pro-IS militants in taking over the southern city of Marawi three years ago. The five-month siege and an ensuing battle with government forces killed an estimated 1,200 enemy combatants, soldiers, and civilians and left the city in ruins.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported the number of militants killed.