Almost 40 people have been killed in weeks-long fighting between Islamic State-linked militants and the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group that signed a peace deal with the government, officials said Thursday.
Von al Haq, military chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said clashes and running gun battles have occurred in marshland areas near the town of Datu Salibo, about 800 km (500 miles) south of Manila, since the start of the month.
He said the militant group consisted of former MILF “lost command” guerrillas who joined smaller factions to support the Islamic State (IS), which had sent foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East to back Filipino Abu Sayyaf and Maute fighters engaged in clashes with troops in nearby Marawi city since May 23.
Al Haq said the fighters belonged to Jamaah Mohajirin Ansa (JMA). Little is known about JMA except members are former MILF rebels who came out in public last year to support the IS, whose leader in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, led the siege in Marawi.
Additionally, the group is allied with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which splintered with the MILF to continue the rebellion.
“The fighting has been spread over several days from Aug. 2 to 19,” al Haq told BenarNews. “The fighting has so far been intense. Our fighters are sometimes swimming in the swamp while engaging in fighting.”
He said at least 10 MILF fighters died in the fighting. The military, which has been helping the MILF, said at least 26 enemy fighters were killed.
“We have overrun several strategic positions of the enemy side and recovered at least 20 improvised explosive devices,” al Haq said. “We have also recovered a black flag typically used by the IS in its attacks, including in Marawi.”
The MILF signed a peace deal with the Philippine government in 2014, officially ending its separatist rebellion in the south that began in the 1970s.
Over the years, thousands of people died in the fighting that stunted the economic growth of the country’s southern third.
At the height of the MILF’s power, it was known to control large camps where foreign militants had trained. These militants later linked up with several radical groups in the south, including the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed for some of the worst attacks in the country, including kidnappings and beheading of foreigners and bomb attacks.
Mohagher Iqbal, a senior leader of the MILF, said about 50 militants from the enemy side were involved in the fighting. He warned that unless checked, the “radical forces” would continue to grow.
“Our forces know these remote marshland areas, but should we neglect this development, young Muslims would soon be radicalized,” Iqbal said.
Military provides artillery and air support
Local army spokesman Capt. Arvin Encinas said the fighting has continued with the military providing artillery, ground and air support to the MILF.
“This is a joint operation by our government troops and the MILF, which is now our partner in peace,” he said.
The MILF in July said it supported a “fatwa” called by local Muslim leaders against the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group in Marawi, the country’s only Islamic city that has been abandoned by its more than 200,000 inhabitants as the military fights to dislodge the militants.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire south under martial law and has welcomed intelligence help from neighbors and allies the United States and Australia. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have offered counter-terror help to arrest militants who cross their borders.
The fighting in Marawi has left more than 700 people dead, including 583 enemy fighters, the military said. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said troops were continuing to move forward and that “the enemy-held area is getting smaller by the day.
“We will soon get back Marawi,” he said, adding troops had recently retaken a police station that had fallen to rebel hands at the start of the fighting. He said about 38 buildings had been cleared of the rebels recently, but 300 others remained to be declared safe and fully retaken.
Padilla also could not comment on the fate of the dozens of hostages believed held by the gunmen, including a Catholic priest who earlier aired an appeal to Duterte to stop the military’s continuing air raids that could harm them.
A member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front wades through a flooded farm on his way to the frontline in Datu Salibo town, Maguindanao province, in southern island of Mindanao, Aug. 22, 2017.(AFP)