More than a dozen people have been killed as thousands of families fled their homes after two days of clashes between Philippine security forces and Islamic State-linked fighters in several areas in the southern Philippines, authorities said Tuesday.
Military officials ordered mass evacuations in several towns in central Mindanao, as authorities announced that one of those killed the previous day was a bomb expert trained by a Malaysian militant who died four years ago.
“We ask the civilians to stay in the evacuation centers for their safety and wait for the instruction of their village officials,” regional military chief Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters.
Soldiers pounded the militants with artillery fire in the towns of Shariff Saydona Mustapha and Datu Salibo in the province of Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), he said.
As a result of two days of fighting, Sobejana said, eight militants and a soldier had been killed.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the bereaved families and friends of our soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice in protecting our people against the terrorist group,” Brig. Gen. Roberto Ancan, commander of Army’s 1st Infantry Division, told reporters.
The target of the military offensive was Abu Turaife, a leader of the BIFF, officials said. BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s main Muslim separatist force whose leaders oversee an autonomous region in the south.
Raise Jajurie, minister social services in the region, told BenarNews that about 3,300 families were affected by the military operation.
In Lanao del Sur province, about 220 km (137 miles) north of Maguindanao, security forces were locked in fierce fighting with followers of Humam Abdul Najib (alias Abu Dar), according to Col. Romeo Brawner, commander of army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade.
Two soldiers and two militants have been killed in the military operation that started Monday, Brawner said.
Dar is a cousin of the Maute brothers, the two militant leaders who helped lead the siege of Marawi two years ago with Isnilon Hapilon, the IS chief in the region. Hapilon and the Mautes were among the militants killed in Marawi in 2017, but Dar managed to escape, officials said.
Dar was the highest-ranking Filipino leader of Marawi militants, according to intelligence officials, who said he and several of his supporters had slipped out of the city in the final days of the fighting that ended after five months, killing about 1,200 people, most of them militants.
“We are sustaining our focused military operation in order to destroy the remnants of this group and make the province free from terrorists,” Brawner told reporters.
He said additional troops were sent to the area to pursue Dar’s men.
Authorities identified the two slain militants as Abu Jihad and Abu Tahir, who was believed to be a former student of Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir. The bomb expert, also called Marwan, was killed by police commandos in January 2015 in Maguindanao province in an operation that resulted in the death of 44 officers.
The violence erupted just two weeks after MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim formally traded in his combat fatigues and assumed his new role as interim leader of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Ebrahim has acknowledged that the IS remained a problem for the south, which remains among the poorest regions in the country.
Last week, Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad met with Ebrahim to congratulate him on assuming his role as BARMM leader. While Mahathir was optimistic with the future of the south, he warned that violent extremism continued to pose a problem and could derail development in the region.
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro contributed to this report.