Government security forces killed at least 26 members of a local militant group over days of fighting in the southern Philippines this week, military officials said Thursday.
Combatants of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group of the former separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), attacked a civilian community at dawn Wednesday and set fire to several homes in the town of Datu Unsay in Maguindanao province, officials said.
Fresh fighting erupted when troops arrived in the area following reports that BIFF were harassing civilians, Col. Gerry Besana, spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Central, told BenarNews.
The military also launched airstrikes to drive away the militants.
Wednesday’s fighting initially left eight militants dead, but civilians later reported that three more BIFF combatants had been killed and their bodies were dragged away by comrades who escaped.
“They were not able to take our detachment in the area as what their commanders were claiming. We don’t have any casualties also,” Besana said.
The militants burned three houses of locals who were supporting a government offensive against them, Besana confirmed.
On Monday night, soldiers killed four militants when they attacked the Army’s 5th Infantry Battalion detachment in the village of Maitumaig, located in the same town in Maguindanao.
Earlier that day, 11 BIFF fighters were killed in a ground and air assault against the militants in the town of Carmen in North Cotabato, the local military spokesman, Capt. Arvin John Encinas, said.
Four soldiers were wounded during the operation in the village of Tonganon, but they were out of danger, Encinas said.
“We expect that they will be staging retaliatory attacks because of the number of their fatalities,” he said.
BIFF: In government’s crosshairs
The military has accused BIFF members of engaging in criminal activities, including cattle rustling and drug trafficking.
After freeing the Muslim city of Marawi from Islamic State control after a five-month battle that ended in late October, President Rodrigo Duterte said BIFF would be among his administration’s next targets.
BIFF splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 over differences in ideology. MILF eventually abandoned its fight for independence to settle for autonomy in 2014.
While it has claimed it wanted to pursue the separatist struggle in the south, the military said that many in BIFF’s ranks have engaged in criminality or pledged allegiance to other groups seeking to attract funding from Islamic State (IS) militants in the Middle East.
With hundreds of fighters, BIFF had vowed to push on with the separatist fight, attracting younger, more hardline members of MILF.
MILF guerrilla leader Wahid Tundok, who commands a large number of fighters, had earlier warned that the former separatists could launch a siege larger than the one in Marawi, if the government failed to deliver on its promise and Congress did not come up with a law to enshrine regional autonomy.
The BBL was a landmark document, which was signed when MILF agreed to end its rebellion in 2014. It spells out the political process by which the MILF would transform into an entity that would govern an expanded autonomous region in the south.
However, in 2015, lawmakers held up passage of the law after 44 police commandos were killed by MILF guerrillas, when they entered a rebel-held zone during an operation to target Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir.
The military is also going after another group of former MILF guerrillas, led by Abu Turaipe, the leader of a local IS cell operating in a remote part of the south.
He was named by Duterte as the likely new leader of the IS in the region after the military killed Isnilon Hapilon and his top lieutenants in Marawi.
Earlier this month, five of Turaipe’s followers were killed in military airstrikes.