Updated at 11:32 p.m. ET on 2018-11-19
Philippine security forces killed two suspected Filipino militants Monday following a gunfight that took place after the duo who were believed to be supporters of the Islamic State (IS) tried to sneak past a security checkpoint in the restive south, officials said.
The suspects were aboard a private vehicle but refused to stop when security forces flagged them for a routine inspection near Tacurong city, said Chief Superintendent Eliseo Rasco, the regional police commander.
“The suspects opened fire on officers manning said checkpoint. This prompted the joint security forces to chase them until suspects were cornered and a firefight ensued between the operating team and the suspects, which resulted to their instantaneous death,” Rasco said.
Police recovered an improvised bomb, a pistol, assorted ammunition and cellphone components that investigators said could be used to produce a home-made explosive, blasting caps and a black IS flag.
“We received information that a homemade bomb was about to be transported within our areas. Thus, all police and military counterparts were alerted,” Rasco said.
Rasco said the unidentified slain militants could be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014 to end its decades-long insurgency. President Rodrigo Duterte, however, signed a law in July that aims to give the Muslims an expanded autonomy in the south, subject to a plebiscite.
The BIFF, which has pledged allegiance to the IS, has vowed to continue with the separatist fight in Mindanao island, the southern third of this majority Catholic country.
Regional military spokesman Capt. Arvin Encinas said that after the incident in Tacurong, suspected militants detonated two homemade bombs they planted in the nearby towns of Ampatuan and Datu Hoffer in Maguindanao province, leaving a soldier injured.
“No one was hurt in the first blast in Ampatuan. After 20 minutes, another explosion occurred, wounding a soldier among the team conducting routine patrol in Datu Hoffer,” he said.
In August, two separate bomb attacks left two dead and dozens wounded in Isulan town.
The region has been under tight military rule since last year, when IS-linked extremists seized the city of Marawi for five months, leaving 1,200 people dead, most of them militants. In July, a suicide bomb attack claimed by IS also left 11 people dead on southern Basilan island, also in Mindanao.
The gunbattle in Tacurong occurred hours before MILF leader Ibrahim Murad visited the armed forces main camp in Manila on Monday, marking the first time that the former guerrilla commander set foot in a military base.
“More than four decades ago, I walked out of university without completing my engineering degree,” Murad told reporters. “Many Bangsamoro (Muslim) colleagues did the same. Since then, I have avoided military installations and camps. During those times of war, I have thought only of destroying or neutralizing military camps.”
“I never imagined during those dark days that I will, one day, step inside a military camp and be feted with this honor by what used to be our adversary,” Murad told reporters.
“I came, I saw, I found friends and I made peace, he said. “I had sentiments while I was walking along the Camp's premises and I felt that this is a signal from Allah that we are already in the final stage of our struggle.”
Under the peace deal, the MILF agreed to help the military go after IS-linked groups in the south. It has formed a special unit that fights alongside the army in the jungles and swamps of the south.
Luis Liwanag in Manila contributed to this report.
Updated to add a photo of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader Murad Ebrahim's historic visit at the Philippine military's headquarters.