Filipino militants allied with the Islamic State assaulted an army camp in the southern Philippines, but the military repelled them using artillery in four hours of clashes that left seven attackers dead, the military said Wednesday.
There were no casualties on the government side, officials said.
The fighting came amid tightened security in the south, a month before the holding of a plebiscite to ratify a Muslim autonomy law that aims to bring economic development to the south that has been ravaged by decades of rebellion.
“We used artillery fire to drive away the militants,” Army spokesman Capt. Arvin John Encinas told BenarNews.
Members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked the military camp Tuesday near the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, but they were repelled after a heavy exchange of gunfire, Encinas said.
The guerrillas first launched their assault around 10 a.m. on a detachment of the 2nd Mechanized Battalion, forcing residents to evacuate, he said, adding that security forces did not suffer casualties.
Commander Abu Rusdak led the attack, but soldiers fought back and killed seven of their enemies, Encinas said.
Rusdak is one of the lieutenants of Abu Turaipe, believed to be the most senior leader in line to inherit the leadership of the local IS branch following the slaying of Isnilon Hapilon last year in Marawi city, about 225 km (140 miles) north of Maguindanao.
Hapilon’s group laid siege to Marawi for five months, leaving at least 1,200 dead, most of them militants. The battle was the biggest security crisis faced by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has placed the entire south under military rule.
Martial law is due to expire this month, but the military has asked Duterte to extend it, citing continuing threats from militants.
The military has concentrated its combat operations in Maguindanao since early this year, after intelligence reports said that militants were recruiting fresh members to launch attacks similar to Marawi.
Several foreigners from the Southeast Asian region and the Middle East have also been arrested since December last year.
The BIFF, which commands hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008. BIFF has pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.
The latest fighting occurred weeks before the south holds a special plebiscite in January aimed at ratifying the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which Duterte signed in July this year.
The law aims to give the poverty-stricken south an expanded autonomous area, offering self-determination to the nation’s minority four million Muslims by giving them powers to elect their own parliament.
The plebiscite is to take place in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. It will also include six towns in Lanao del Norte and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan.
Authorities hope that the law would end a nearly 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people in the country’s second-largest island of Mindanao. As part of the deal on the BOL, the MILF had also agreed to disband its fighting force.
But the military has said that it needed to maintain its control of the south, citing continuing threats of likely attacks from IS-inspired groups. It said that its heavy presence in the south has prevented those flushed out from Marawi from regrouping.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City contributed to this report.