Two suspected Filipino Islamic militants trying to sneak a bomb into a populated area were killed in a predawn gunbattle with the military in the southern Philippines, officials said Wednesday, days after a deadly suicide bomb attack left 10 dead elsewhere in the south.
Soldiers were manning a security checkpoint going into M’lang town in North Cotabato province when they intercepted two members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) riding on a motorcycle, regional army chief Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
A brief gunbattle ensued that led to the killing of Allen Nords Salbo and Saligan Patrick Ali. Officials said they were BIFF fighters.
“Our troops recovered a black sling bag containing a homemade bomb. We detonated the bomb,” Sobejana said.
The device was made from a 60 mm mortar projectile attached to a mobile phone, a common bomb that the militants in the area use in attacks.
“We have information that BIFF will carry out bomb attacks, so we tightened our security,” Sobejana said.
Composed of dozens of fighters, BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the country’s largest separatist force that gave up the fight for independence in exchange for autonomy.
BIFF later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but did not send fighters to Marawi last year, when local IS commander Isnilon Hapilon led a five-month siege that left at least 1,200 people dead. Hapilon was among those killed in October along with several fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
President Rodrigo Duterte last month signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, four years after the government reached a peace deal with MILF to address extremism in the region and address long-standing grievances of the minority Muslims.
Under the pact, areas dominated by Muslims are to elect a parliament in hopes of ending almost a half-century of insurgency that left thousands dead and deep poverty in many parts of the mineral-rich region.
But just days after the law was passed, a bomb went off at a police checkpoint on Basilan island, killing 10.
The military initially suspected the extremist Abu Sayyaf group as behind the attack, but IS later took responsibility, saying it was carried out by a Moroccan national.
Authorities in Manila have said initial results of the investigation have been inconclusive, but the military arrested a local Muslim cleric in Basilan who allegedly helped foreign fighters gain entry into Basilan, a jungle-clad territory and the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf.
Founded in the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings in southern Philippines during the past two decades.
The group was blacklisted by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. It continues to hold several foreigners and Filipinos hostage after beheading a German captive and two Canadian hostages in the past two years.