Philippine Soldiers Die in Clash with Pro-IS Militants in Basilan

Richel V. Umel and Jeoffrey Maitem
Iligan City and Marawi, Philippines
2017-11-09
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171109-PH-mosque-1000 Philippine security forces patrol a street by the Grand Mosque in Mapandi, a district in the southern city of Marawi, Nov. 9, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Updated at 3:35 p.m. ET on 2017-11-09

At least six soldiers were killed and four others wounded during a firefight with pro-Islamic State (IS) Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the southern Philippines, military officials said Thursday.

The four-hour clash ensued near Sumisip, a remote town on Basilan island, when the Army’s 18th Battalion launched a “strike operation” against an Abu Sayyaf group on Wednesday afternoon, regional military spokeswoman Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay said.

The militants were later reinforced by other armed men in the area, who engaged the soldiers in intense fighting near the island’s main highway, she said.

“Operating troops were met with heavy fire by lawless elements believed to be relatives and sympathizers of the Abu Sayyaf bandits,” said Col. Juvymax Uy, the local military task force commander.

An undetermined number of enemy fighters were killed, according to regional military chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez.

“We are sad to report the deaths of six of your soldiers during the encounter yesterday in Basilan,” Galvez said in a statement.

The clash in Basilan marked the single deadliest incident for the Philippine military since the government in late October declared an end to a five-month battle against IS-backed militants in the southern city of Marawi, during which 165 troops and policemen were killed.

Galvez said combat operations and intelligence gathering against the bandits in Basilan would be intensified “to defeat the remaining terrorists.”

“Rest assured that this will not stop us from crushing the enemies of the state,” he warned.

Basilan, a majority-Muslim island province with more than 460,000 residents, is about 514 km (321 miles) southwest of Marawi city.

Engaged in banditry

Upon assuming his post last month, Armed forces chief Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero vowed to finish off the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), two militant groups that had pledged allegiance to IS.

Both groups operate in Mindanao, the country’s largest island in the south, but are mostly into banditry and kidnappings. Some of their factions, though, are known to form the bedrock of the IS command on the island.

On Thursday, the military said it had also launched airstrikes against BIFF positions in North Cotabato province, about 236 km (147 miles) south of Marawi. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Marawi battle began when security forces tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, leader of an Abu Sayyaf faction and the recognized “emir” of IS in Southeast Asia, on May 23.

Philippine authorities were stunned to discover that Hapilon was backed by local militants with the Maute gang and IS fighters from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including Malaysians and Indonesians, who learned how to thrive in impoverished Muslim areas of Mindanao.

Since the official end of the battle on Oct. 23, troops have already pulled out of Marawi in large numbers, but a small contingent is searching for and rounding up so-called “stragglers” among the militants who have fired back. The fighting there during the past two weeks has been intense, even as civilians have begun trickling into the ruined city to rebuild their homes.

It could not be immediately determined if the Basilan militants were also involved in the Marawi fighting.

Bodies recovered

On Thursday, police said that up to 75 corpses had been recovered from the rubble of Marawi’s main battle area during the past three days.

Among them were women and children, although it was not immediately clear whether they were relatives of rebel fighters or civilians, Senior Supt. Mary Leocyl Mag-abo said.

Forensics experts have been trying to identify the bodies, which were said to be badly decomposed, said Danny Captain, owner of a local funeral home that helped authorities retrieve the corpses.

Bomb-disposal teams, meanwhile, were scouring areas in Marawi on Thursday to clear booby traps left behind by fleeing militants.

About 30 fighters were believed to be hiding in the ruins as of Thursday, officials said.

Malaysian Air force officers fly a surveillance mission over the Sulu Sea, near Basilan Island in the southern Philippines, during the first day of a Trilateral Air Patrol initiative also involving Indonesia and the Philippines, Nov. 8, 2017.
Malaysian Air force officers fly a surveillance mission over the Sulu Sea, near Basilan Island in the southern Philippines, during the first day of a Trilateral Air Patrol initiative also involving Indonesia and the Philippines, Nov. 8, 2017.
Courtesy Royal Malaysian Air Force



First flight in air patrols takes off

The fighting on Basilan Island occurred the same day that the first flight took off from Malaysia as part of a new trilateral initiative with the Philippines and Indonesia to conduct joint aerial patrols over the Sulu Sea, which separates the southern Philippine islands from Borneo island.

A Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130 plane carried out the first of the patrols – in which the three countries are to take turns every month – as it departed from Tawau airport in Sabah, Malaysia on Wednesday, officials said.

“This joint patrol will improve the security situation in the waters of Sulu Sea and curb any terrorist elements including piracy and kidnapping,” Capt. P. Pulendran, director of the Malaysia Maritime Administration Center (MCC), told BenarNews.

The flight was carrying a least one officer from the Philippine Air Force, Lt. Col. Acmad Omar, who received a briefing from the pilot, Maj. Zulhilmi Zainudin.

“Air force officers from Indonesia were unable to participate … because of some inevitable factors but the air patrol operation was carried out in border areas of the three countries," Pulendran said, without elaborating.

Any information gathered during the surveillance operations would be channeled to the MCC as well as the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) and the Joint Regional Command Center in Malaysia, officials said.

Felipe Villamor in Manila, Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur and Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia contributed to this report.

This story was updated to clarify that it could not be immediately determined if the Basilan militants were also involved in the Marawi gun battles.

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