Philippine security forces killed three Islamic State-linked militants in clashes at a jungle encampment in the southern Philippines, the military said Friday, but a top Filipino guerrilla who helped carry out the siege in Marawi city two years ago escaped during the firefight.
Soldiers backed by helicopters and artillery fire flushed the gunmen out of their jungle camp in Sultan Dumalondong town, about 50 km (31 miles) south of the ruined city of Marawi, after daylong clashes that began Thursday, the military said.
“The enemy was completely taken by surprise as evident from the direction of their initial gunfire,” infantry battalion commander Lt. Col. Ian Ignes told reporters.
About 30 militants, led by Humam Abdul Najib alias Abu Dar, a senior militant who helped plan and carry out the takeover of Marawi, offered “fierce resistance,” Ignes said.
“We acted on the information as reported by the residents and the local chief executives,” Ignes said, adding that the initial assault lasted for about 10 hours.
The encampment included fortified bunkers, foxholes and running trenches, Ignes said. Soldiers also found a training camp, a black IS flag, communications equipment and notebooks that contain Islamic writings and possible plans of attack, he said.
The five-month Marawi siege ended in October 2017, and killed 1,200 people, most of them militants led by Isnilon Hapilon, the overall IS commander in the Philippines.
Col. Romeo Brawner, the regional army chief, said Dar’s men abandoned the camp as the troops advanced.
He said the guerrillas were “no longer capable of mounting large-scale attacks.”
“Despite their losses, we are not discounting the possibility of spoiling attacks in retaliation to our latest exploit,” Brawner told reporters. “We expect the terrorist group to attack indiscriminately, targeting Muslim and Christian communities alike.”
But troops were prepared to counter the gunmen’s recruitment drive, he said.
“We will take them out of their comfort zones until they have no other option but to die or return to the folds of the law,” Brawner said, emphasizing that troops on the ground were “a determined force.”
“We will serve justice to the people who destroyed Marawi city,” he said.
Dar, is believed to be a cousin of the Maute brothers, who plotted the siege with Hapilon. The Maute brothers and Hapilon were among the militants killed in Marawi while Dar managed to escape, authorities said.
Military intelligence officials earlier reported that Dar, believed to be the highest-ranking Filipino leader of Marawi militants, and others slipped out of the city in the final days of the fighting. Officials said Dar and his group were believed hiding in the hinterlands and jungle areas near Marawi.
The latest fighting erupted days after Filipino Muslims in Mindanao region participated in a referendum for a law aimed at granting expanded autonomy to mainly Muslim areas of the south.
The law, signed last year by President Rodrigo Duterte, offers self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
The law came out of a peace deal struck by the Philippine government and MILF rebels in 2014 – two years before Duterte took power. It was designed to end bloodshed in the southern region, where almost a half-century of separatist rebellion had left thousands dead.
Several militant groups, who are seeking an independent Islamic state, have rejected the deal.