Three suspected members of an Islamic State-linked militant group were killed during a heavy artillery bombardment ahead of a ground strike by government forces in the southern Philippines, the military said Wednesday.
Troops on Tuesday night fired 105-mm artillery rounds in targeting a suspected militant camp in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, a town in Maguindanao province on Mindanao island, said Maj. Homer Estolas, the local infantry’s spokesman.
The camp is where Ismael Abubakar (also known as Imam Bungos), the leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), was believed to be hiding out, Estolas said.
“It was a preparatory move to soften the resistance of the militants before the actual operations started,” Estolas said.
“The militants were killed by the bombardment,” he said.
Philippine special forces stormed the militants’ stronghold afterwards, Estolas said.
They encountered no resistance and found the bodies of the slain enemy fighters slumped over their firearms at the BIFF encampment, he said. Troops recovered the bodies along with M16 rifles, improvised bombs and several hand grenades, he added.
A police forensics team was investigating to determine if the dead suspects were foreigners or Philippine militants, he said.
The BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the country’s largest Muslim separatist group, which signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014 to end their rebellion of more than three decades.
The MILF now controls an autonomous region in Mindanao, where Muslims form a large minority.
The government has begun integrating MILF fighters into its ranks, primarily to help it against smaller armed factions that have vowed to continue the fight for full independence.
The BIFF is one of several known groups waging that fight and has flown the black Islamic State (IS) flag.
It, however, did not join other pro-IS militants in taking over the southern city of Marawi two years ago. Instead, BIFF launched deadly diversionary attacks elsewhere in the Philippine south to divert military attention from Marawi.
The five-month siege of Marawi left an estimated 1,200 militants, soldiers and civilians dead, in gun battles that saw foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the enemy frontlines.
Troops are also going after the militants in another front in Lanao del Sur province, near Marawi, officials said.
The fighters are a band of 30 fighters who had helped in Marawi as well. They are believed to be led by a fighter known only “Zacaria” in Madalum town, according to the military.
“They kept on evading our troops but the soldiers are tracking them closely,” said Col. Jose Maria Cuerpo, commander of the local brigade.
Cuerpo said troops supported by artillery and air assets recently attacked a suspected camp of the fighters.
They found some 14 tents as well as personal paraphernalia and black IS flags that are popular with IS-linked militants here. But the enemy fighters escaped, he said.
Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Iligan, Philippines.