Philippine security forces clashed with a band of militants linked to the extremist group Islamic State, leaving four gunmen and two civilians who were caught in the crossfire dead, the military said Friday.
The clash occurred Thursday in a remote town in the southern province of Lanao del Sur between army troops and a group believed to be led by Humam Abdul Najib (alias Abu Dar), a senior militant who helped plan and carry out the takeover of Marawi city last year, regional army commander Col. Romeo Brawner said.
“We wish to convey our condolences to the families of civilians caught in the crossfire,” Brawner said. “It was very unfortunate.”
“Rest assured your military will do everything to capture or neutralize the perpetrators of the killings of the civilians,” he said, adding that soldiers recovered assorted weapons and homemade bombs after the encounter.
The fighting erupted near a small village in Sultan Dumalondong, a known bailiwick of the militants and about 76 kilometers (47 miles) south of Marawi.
Brawner said troops were deployed to the area on Thursday evening to follow up on reports that Najib was seen in the area. They ran into a wall of resistance, receiving heavy gunfire, he said.
According to Brawner, Najib’s trusted lieutenant, Mubarak Manalo, was among those killed.
The military in June doubled the bounty for any information leading to the capture of Najib to six million pesos (about U.S. $113,207). Najib is believe to be among the likely successors to Isnilon Hapilon, the IS commander in the Philippines who led the siege in Marawi last year.
Hapilon, along with several top leaders of another pro-IS local group, were killed in October last year, effectively ending the five-month siege that left the formerly scenic city in tatters and killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.
Najib, however, had escaped from Marawi and is believed to be trying to revive the support for the IS in the south, military officials said.
Apart from Abu Dar, authorities said Najib also uses several names, including Humam Abdul and Ustadz Humam, to confuse the military.
His wife, Nafisa Pundug, was arrested in the southern city of General Santos in April.
Born in Mindanao but studied at an Islamic school in the northern Philippines, Najib was reported to have undergone explosives training in Afghanistan in 2005, before returning to Mindanao in 2012, when he founded the militant group Khilafa Islamiyah Mindanao, which operated in areas near Marawi, about 1,500 kilometers (937 miles) south of the nation’s capital Manila.
Before the Marawi siege last year, Najib facilitated the entry of foreign fighters, including an undetermined number of extremists from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, into the southern Philippines, officials said.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato City contributed to this report.