The Philippine Army said Tuesday it had killed 20 suspects from a breakaway Muslim faction during a counter-militant offensive in the southern province of Maguindanao this past week.
Among the slain suspects were Esmael Abubakar, also known as Commander Khalid, and Bungos, a sub-leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a spokesman for the Army’s 6th Division said, adding that six Indonesians were among militants targeted in the offensive.
BIFF is a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the Philippines three years ago and dropped its separatist bid.
“The assault started on May 6 until today. We utilized our air, artillery and armored assets," division spokesman Capt. Arvin Encinas, Encinas told BenarNews.
“This was a well-planned, well-coordinated and focused military operation against the BIFF that resulted in the deaths of 20 people from the enemy side.”
He said seven soldiers were also wounded in the fighting, which occurred days after a joint police and military operation targeted a BIFF commander wanted for drug trafficking. That operation led to the deaths of a mother and her two young children who were shot by the fleeing BIFF gunmen, officials said.
Encinas said the latest operation began a few days ago after the military launched an air strike following the sighting of an estimated 100 BIFF men who were preparing to attack a military detachment in the remote town of Datu Salibo, about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) from Manila, the Philippine capital.
“Among the targets were six Indonesian suspects in the group,” he said, but declined to elaborate, citing security reasons.
Abu Misri Mama, BIFF spokesman, confirmed Bungos’ death, but denied that the rebels suffered major casualties.
In 2008, the BIFF broke away from the MILF and vowed to carry on with the uprising, claiming that Malaysian-brokered peace talks would not lead to a separate Muslim homeland in Mindanao, the southernmost major island in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
Also on Tuesday, a roadside bomb planted by the BIFF wounded four police officers, three of whom remained in critical condition, officials said.
The officers were aboard a patrol car when a remotely triggered improvised explosive device was set off at mid-morning, police said.
The blast occurred near a crowded public market in the town of Rajah Buaya, also in Maguindanao province where military air strikes took place, Senior Superintendent Agustin Tello, the local police chief, said.
Tello said police believed the attack could be in retaliation for a police raid last week that targeted a notorious local drug lord identified as Willie Akil Utto, a member of the BIFF.
“This was a revenge attack, as our men are continuing with the follow-up operations,” to capture the drug lord, he said.