Five Indonesians and a Singaporean were believed to be among suspects killed in fighting between pro-Islamic State (IS) militants and government troops in the southern Philippines, as the death toll rose to 23, the Filipino military said Tuesday.
Authorities were trying to verify whether the six foreigners were among a batch of 15 enemy fighters killed when the Philippine armed forces launched a ground and air assault that targeted Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in sprawling marshland areas in Maguindanao province over the weekend, a regional military chief said.
“There were five Indonesians and a Singaporean who are confirmed to be with the terror group and could be among the 15 fatalities,” Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said, adding that intelligence operatives were checking on their identities.
“They were our primary target, and we are still validating their identities,” Sobejana told reporters.
Thousands of civilians were displaced and a bomb factory destroyed during Sunday’s offensive in rebel-controlled territories in the marshlands, the military had said. A suspected bomb maker and his wife were also arrested during the operation.
On Monday night, the militants retaliated, targeting two military installations in the towns of Datu Unsay and Datu Hoffer, also in Maguindanao, and killing two civilians who were fleeing the violence, officials said.
Troops manning detachments were attacked by BIFF fighters but the soldiers repulsed them, Capt. Arvin John Encinas, a military spokesman, told BenarNews.
Five Filipino Islamic militants were killed by soldiers during the fighting that lasted an hour, according to Encinas. Three of the dead militants were identified as Turman Aber, Mansor Mohammad and Mamalu, Encinas said.
Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for the BIFF, confirmed it was behind Monday’s attack but denied that the rebels targeted civilians. He said they may have been hit by stray bullets.
A soldier, Private First Class Gary Quitor, 27, was the lone fatality on the government side. He was killed instantly Monday when his unit came under heavy enemy fire while soldiers were crossing chest-deep waters in the marshland, Encinas said.
He said the military had obtained information that one of BIFF’s sub-leaders, Salahuddin Hassan (also known as Orak), and some foreign militants were trapped in the area after their boats were destroyed by the air and artillery bombardments.
Hassan is a deputy of Abu Turaife, one of the top leaders of the BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that has signed a peace deal with Manila and is negotiating for a regional autonomy law.
Turaife’s group split from the MILF when it signed a peace deal with Manila three years ago.
He broke away from the rebel chain-of-command and led his followers, who numbered in the few dozens, to press on with the fight. He has pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send guerrillas to fight in Marawi last year.
Marawi city was sacked by followers of overall Islamic State Filipino leader Isnilon Hapilon in May 2017. He and several foreign and local leaders of the groups were slain by Philippine security forces when the siege ended five months later.
The Marawi fighting was considered to be the fiercest in recent years. It led to the destruction of the lakeside Muslim city, and the deaths of some 1,200 people, mostly militants.
But the military believes that many others had escaped Marawi and sought refuge in remote, difficult-to-access areas in the south like Maguindanao, where they have joined local militants.