Filipino security forces killed at least five pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in a massive ground and air strike in the restive southern Philippines, the military said Wednesday.
A military aircraft fired rockets on positions controlled by Abu Turaipe, the leader of a local IS cell operating in a remote part of North Cotabato province. Turaipe is believed to have assumed the leadership of IS after troops killed Isnilon Hapilon in October, at the end of a five-month battle against IS-backed militants holed up in Marawi City, about 86 km (53 miles) to the north.
At least four soldiers were wounded in fighting during a ground assault that followed the airstrike on Tuesday, Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesman for the military’s 6th Division, told BenarNews.
“Five of our targets were killed in the airstrike. The information came from villagers but we are validating the enemy fatalities. Our wounded men are out of danger,” he said.
“They have enough numbers of strength to conduct atrocities across the region. That’s why we need to eliminate them,” Encinas added.
He said he had no information on whether Turaipe, who controls a massive marshland area in the south, was among the slain suspected militants.
Three years ago, Turaipe quit the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main separatist rebel group in the southern Philippines, after it signed a peace deal with Manila.
The MILF opted to settle for expanded autonomy in the south, an idea that Turaipe rejected.
He broke away from the insurgent chain-of-command and led his followers, who numbered in the few dozen, to press on with the fight.
But his faction mostly engaged troops in hit-and-run attacks and largely stayed out the IS-led siege of Marawi.
“I am very determined to defeat the threat groups and thwart them from doing terroristic activities in Central Mindanao,” said Maj. Gen. Arnel dela Vega, commander of the Army’s 6th Division.
He appealed for support from communities to help capture Turaipe, whose band of fighters is believed to be backed by Malaysian militants, according to army intelligence.
On Monday in the island province of Basilan farther to the south, suspected Abu Sayyaf militants believed to be linked IS, killed a soldier and wounded two others in an ambush in the town of Tipo-tipo.
Local police chief Senior Inspector Mujahid A. Mujahid said soldiers were conducting a routine patrol when they were attacked.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), founded in the early 1990s, is notorious for carrying out bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
ASG was responsible for a ferry bombing on Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than a hundred people.
Hapilon had led an ASG faction before he was named the emir of the IS in the region last year.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared the Marawi fighting over in late October after fighter jets pounded the militants in near-daily bombing runs.
The battle left 1,100 people dead, including 930 militants and 165 soldiers and police.
A military intelligence report said pro-IS militants had regrouped elsewhere and were actively seeking new recruits.
Felipe Villamor contributed reporting from Manila.