Three soldiers were wounded Thursday during a clash with a Muslim rebel faction led by a militant who helped carry out attacks in the southern Philippine city of Marawi in 2017, the military said.
Members of the 55th Infantry Battalion ran into a group of about 30 militants in the hinterlands of Sultan Dumalondong town in Lanao del Sur province, triggering the clashes, local army commander Col. Romeo Brawner said.
“The armed group is led by Abu Dar,” Brawner told BenarNews.
He said an intermittent firefight continued Thursday evening and intelligence gathered on the ground indicated at least three militants were killed.
Humam Abdul Najib (alias Abu Dar) is a senior militant who helped plan and carry out the takeover of Marawi, a lakeshore Islamic city reduced to rubble. The five-month siege that ended in October 2017 left an estimated 1,200 people dead, many of them militants.
Dar, is believed to be a cousin of the Maute brothers, who plotted the siege with Islamic State (IS) regional leader Isnilon Hapilon. The Maute brothers and Hapilon were among the militants killed in Marawi while Dar managed to escape.
Military intelligence reported Dar, the highest ranking Filipino leader of Marawi militants, and others slipped out of the city in the final days of the fighting, taking stolen cash and valuables they are using to fund their terror campaign. He and his group are believed hiding in the hinterlands and jungle areas between the remote towns of Pagayawan, Pualas and Tubaran.
“There were alleged reported initial casualties and wounded from the enemy side,” Brawner said. “The firefight is still going on and hopefully this time we will be able to get Abu Dar and his armed men.”
Brawner said the three soldiers wounded in the firefight had been taken to a hospital for treatment.
“We are calling on the public not to panic and not to evacuate because we have everything under control,” he said.
The regional army chief said troops have sought out Abu Dar.
“The armed encounter is the result of our relentless campaign against Maute-ISIS remnants and Abu Dar’s group,” Maj. Gen. Roseller Murillo said using another acronym for IS.
Dar studied in an Islamic school in the mountain resort city of Baguio in the north, where he was radicalized. In 2005, he went for jihad training in Afghanistan where he became an expert bomb-maker, according to officials.
He also was an arms instructor with the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the armed unit of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He left the MILF ranks when the group dropped its bid for full independence in the south and eventually signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014, officials said.
The attack occurred amid heightened security in the south where days earlier residents voted to determine which areas would be included in a MILF-led autonomous area. The autonomous area is the centerpiece of legislation signed by President Rodrigo Duterte last year.
Many militant groups opposed the deal.
A breakaway faction from the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters have rejected the deal and continue fighting for an independent Islamic state. The group threatened violence in the south to thwart the vote.
Meanwhile, Dar’s group and others are consolidating forces and recruiting more fighters, the military has said.
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines, contributed to this report.