At least 13 pro-Islamic State (IS) militants were killed in three days of sporadic clashes that displaced hundreds of families in remote towns in the southern Philippines, the military said Wednesday.
Artillery and ground operations against members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were raging in the remote towns of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Datu Saudin Ampatuan, Datu Salibo, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak, officials said.
The BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has pledged allegiance to the IS, but has not sent fighters to the southern city of Marawi, which has been reduced to rubble last year after five months of gun battles and airstrikes that killed 1,200 people, mostly militants.
Capt. Arvin Encinas, local army spokesman, said nine other BIFF fighters also surrendered amid the heavy gun battles, which began on April 9. Two government soldiers were also wounded in the fighting, he said.
“We have two militants dead based on our troops’ information, while our civilian intelligence units reported 11 enemy deaths,” Encinas said. “Their identities are still being validated on the ground.”
The military said it was checking whether among those killed were BIFF commanders Kagi Karialan, who was the original target of the offensives, and Abu Turaife, a man believed by Filipino intelligence operatives as the likely new IS leader in the southern region following the death of Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi.
Militants led by Hapilon – the acknowledged Filipino leader of IS Philippines – took over Marawi and engaged security forces in five months of vicious fighting that ended in October after Hapilon along with several Filipino militant leaders were killed in a clash.
Maj. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, regional military commander, on Tuesday said troops also recovered some 20 rifles used by the gunmen in the latest three days of clashes.
“We have captured their two lairs. Our troops utilized all available air assets, artillery, as well as armor assets in support of the ground operations of the different field units,” Dela Vega said.
“We will continue our pursuit of terror groups like the BIFF that threaten the peace and security of communities,” he said.
Encinas said the nine BIFF fighters surrendered through the MILF, the country’s largest insurgent force that signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
Officials said about 405 families have been displaced in the operations.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this story.