Seven fighters from a former rebel group have been killed during an attack by pro-Islamic State militants in the volatile southern Philippines, the military said Saturday.
The seven Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members died during the attack that set off a shootout on Thursday near Shariff Saydona, a town in Maguindanao province, Maj. Arvin Encinas, a regional military spokesman, confirmed.
“The attack was perpetrated by local ISIS,” Encinas told BenarNews, using another acronym for Islamic State (IS).
The attack against the MILF fighters was led by Abu Turaife of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a group that splintered from MILF in 2008 and later pledged to IS. Turaife quit MILF’s ranks after its leaders signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
“Seven MILF fighters were killed,” Encinas wrote in an incident report seen by Benar.
SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups around the globe, reported that IS had claimed responsibility for the attack in the southern Philippines. SITE quoted IS as saying that eight MILF fighters were killed, but Encinas could only confirm seven deaths.
The bodies of the slain MILF fighters – Laguiali Ali, Poangan Ganda, Kho Mamaluba, Jeomar Salansamen, Mads Maitem, Tongan Tot and Datumaniot Musbil – were claimed by their relatives, the military said.
The incident occurred weeks after the MILF demobilized more than a thousand ex-combatants, who turned over hundreds of firearms during an official ceremony witnessed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. There have been fears raised by some MILF fighters that this would leave them vulnerable to attacks from rival groups.
Despite the peace agreement, dozens of foreign militants are still believed to be on the loose in the Mindanao region, two years after Isnilon Hapilon, the IS leader in the Philippines, led dozens of foreign fighters in taking over the southern city of Marawi in 2017.
Hapilon and his top commanders were killed in Marawi at the end of a five-month battle between militants and government forces. He has since been replaced as chief of the IS branch in the Philippines by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a senior commander of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group.
Some militants, including ones described by security officials as foreigners, escaped to other parts of Mindanao and have been trying to replenish their ranks to launch more attacks, authorities said. So far, the militants have not been able to succeed, largely because the south remains under tight military control.
Joseph Jubelag contributed to this report from General Santos City, Philippines.