Tips from residents in the southern Philippines that rebel group members were gathering, combined with intelligence efforts, led to clashes over the last four days that left dozens of Islamic State-linked fighters dead, military officials said Monday.
As of Friday, the military could positively confirm only 12 militants killed in gun battles that began a day earlier between troops and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in remote villages of Maguindanao province. Since then, the death toll climbed to 44.
“The number of casualties was based on intelligence information,” local army spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana told BenarNews. “Many died in the ground operations on the first day, many also died on the second day during artillery and close air support [operations].”
The clashes erupted after soldiers on a routine patrol were attacked by 50 BIFF members, a breakaway faction of the separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace pact with the government in 2014.
Lt. Col. Alvin Iyog, commander of the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion, said 26 other militants were wounded in the fresh fighting.
“The firefight was intense and resulted in the slight wounding of one of my men. But they kept on pounding the enemy with heavy fire,” Iyog said, adding that retreating rebels had left behind a cache of firearms and improvised bombs.
BIFF pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and to militants who attacked the southern city of Marawi last year, though it did not send fighters. At least 1,200, mostly militants, were killed in the five-month battle in Marawi.
Intelligence sources told BenarNews that several foreigners had fanned out across BIFF-controlled areas, joining Filipino militants as they engaged troops in hit-and-run attacks mostly confined to marshy territories and remote townships in the south.
Iyog said troops had to wade through chest-deep water to get closer to enemy positions.
Residents had reported to the military a day ahead of the gun battle that BIFF was massing up in the area, forcing them to flee to safer ground. This prompted the army to deploy troops to the towns of Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Datu Unsay.
BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member MILF in 2008 and vowed to continue with the separatist fight, attracting younger, more hardline fighters.
Aside from connections with IS, the military also accused BIFF members of engaging in criminal activities, including cattle rustling and drug trafficking.
While the militants were defeated in Marawi, some local Muslim leaders and even MILF leader Murad Ebrahim had earlier warned of attacks spreading in other populated areas in the south, particularly in the cities of Iligan, Cotabato, Davao, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos.
Militant attacks are not new in these areas, and shortly after President Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, his home town of Davao was bombed by an obscure group, which boasted links to the IS. That group, the Maute, would later help IS leader Isnilon Hapilon and several Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters take over Marawi in May.
The fighting ended in October, with the deaths of Hapilon and the key leaders of the Maute gang, but Duterte had kept military rule in the south, with dozens of other fighters believed to be at large and posing danger.
Local military chief Brig. Gen. Bienvenido Datuin confirmed that recruitment efforts by militants were ongoing but had not attracted younger fighters to replenish their thinning ranks.
“Their strength has been reduced significantly and recruitment efforts have not been gaining ground as local populace, through the efforts of the local government units and military, has been made aware on preventing and countering violent extremism,” Datuin said.
Mark Navales in Cotabato contributed to this report.