A soldier and seven suspected Filipino militants allegedly linked to the Islamic State (IS) were killed in weekend clashes in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, military officials said Monday.
A firefight erupted Friday near the town of Mamasapano, when troops under the 33rd Infantry Battalion and police commandos encountered a group of militants under Abu Turaife, leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), according to regional military chief Maj. Gen. Diosdado Carreon.
“One KIA (killed in action) on gov side, seven KIA on enemy,” he said in his internal report about the incident.
The BIFF is a splinter group of the former separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which controls an autonomous region after signing a peace deal with Manila and holding a plebiscite on autonomy.
The latest firefight came two months after the decommissioning of MILF ex-combatants who had turned over hundreds of firearms as part of the peace agreement reached with the government five years ago.
“The Joint Task Force Central will relentlessly pursue the remaining BIFF rebels in Maguindanao and its neighboring provinces to prevent them from conducting atrocities and other diversionary tactics to carry out their terroristic acts,” Carreon said.
He confirmed that two soldiers were injured but declined to name them.
Carreon said troops used an MG520 attack helicopter to drive away the militants who were only 300 meters from government positions.
Military southern command spokesman Maj. Arvin Encinas said the fighting erupted Friday and raged until Sunday.
“We used every available asset we have, artillery and warplanes, because the BIFF were too many,” Encinas said.
The violence forced about 450 families to flee to safer grounds from near Tukanalipao, the same village where a botched raid in 2015 led to the deaths of 44 police commandos.
That raid led to the death of Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian terror suspect and bomb maker known as Marwan who was subject to a $5 million bounty by U.S. authorities. Marwan also was suspected of leading the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia and was wanted for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200, many of them foreign tourists.
Philippine soldiers last week killed three suspected suicide bombers in the island province of Sulu, including two Middle Eastern nationals as troops remain on heightened alert to thwart any bombing attempts.
Troops in Jolo are on the trail of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a senior commander of the Abu Sayyaf group considered by both American and Filipino intelligence officials as the new IS chief in the south.
Butch Malang, chairman of the MILF coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities, said the fighting intensified over the weekend after other IS-linked groups joined in. But he said the MILF combatants stayed away and instead assisted fleeing civilians.
Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, and Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, contributed to this report.