Updated at 8:45 a.m. ET on 2019-04-05
Philippine security forces killed four Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members during an exchange of gunfire in the southern Philippines on Thursday, officials said in confirming the first violent incident since the government handed autonomous rule to the former rebel group barely two months ago.
Eight policemen were also wounded in the violence in Madamba town, Lanao del Sur province, officials said. A firefight erupted at around 1 a.m. when police attempted to serve arrest warrants against four men who were believed to be MILF members, officials said. Philippine authorities described it as a "misencounter."
“Our targets resisted so a heavy firefight ensued,” Col. Madzgani Mukaram, the provincial police chief, told reporters.
MILF, once the country’s largest Muslim insurgent force, technically ceased to be a rebel group after signing a 2014 peace pact with Manila, in a deal that led to the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Mukaram said a band of MILF fighters attacked the security forces with grenades and automatic rifle-fire. Eight police officers were wounded, one went missing and a police vehicle was destroyed, he said.
MILF spokesman Von Al Haq confirmed that the encounter took place and that the four slain men were indeed MILF fighters.
An investigation has already begun to determine the circumstances of the violence, while MILF fighters on the ground had been ordered to return to their barracks, he said.
“We are trying to find out if a coordination was made prior to the operation,” Al Haq said.
Military officials have ordered the deployment of troops to the area to defuse the tension, as well as try to locate the missing policeman, authorities told BenarNews.
The MILF effectively controls BARMM, a zone made up of at least five southern provinces. The MILF will oversee self-rule in the region until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022.
The law aims to give the impoverished Philippine south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
MILF leaders have said that the job won’t be easy, with many militant groups on the fringes still fighting the government, including those who had survived a five-month battle in Marawi city, a siege that killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.
In the last 10 years, before it signed the peace deal with the government, MILF has been involved in several huge encounters with troops.
In 2015, MILF forces killed 44 police commandos during a botched raid in the southern town of Mamasapan, a rebel-controlled area. The violence was described as a deadly “misencounter” that occurred while the policemen were on a mission to kill Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan).
The mission led to Marwan’s death, but the policemen were engaged by a large group of MILF forces, which thought that they were under attack. MILF officials later said that there was no coordination prior to the raid, in violation of the earlier agreement. Seventeen MILF rebels also died in the clash, according to the group.
CLARIFICATION: This version removes an earlier reference to the deadly incident as a friendly fire incident.