At least 12 enemy fighters have been killed this week in sporadic but heavy clashes in the southern Philippines with Filipino militants linked with the extremist group Islamic State (IS), the military said Wednesday.
The ongoing military operations in Maguindanao province are concentrated in and around four remote towns where the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have dug in – Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak – army spokesman Capt. Arvin John Encinas said.
Soldiers sent to defuse a homemade bomb planted by the BIFF guerrillas near the highway at Shariff Aguak came under heavy fire Tuesday, although no immediate casualties on either side were reported.
On Monday, heavy fighting near the town of Shariff Saydona Mustapha left 12 BIFF fighters dead. The bodies were recovered and later turned over to village officials who presided over their burial in accordance with Muslim rites.
The target of the fresh offensive was Abu Turaipe, believed to be the most senior leader in line to inherit the leadership of the local IS branch following the slaying of Isnilon Hapilon last year in Marawi city.
Hapilon’s group laid siege to Marawi for five months, leaving at least 1,200 dead. The battle was the biggest challenge to the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has since kept the south under tight military control as troops round up rebel stragglers.
“We ask the civilians to help our troops by providing information that will lead to the arrest or death of militant leaders in their locality,” Encinas said.
Last week, two soldiers and four militants were killed in other clashes in Maguindanao.
The military has concentrated its combat operations in Maguindanao since early this year, after intelligence reports said that the BIFF were recruiting fresh members to launch attacks similar to Marawi.
Several foreigners from the region and the Middle East have also been arrested since December.
The BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008. BIFF pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.