Three soldiers and five militants from a group allied with the Islamic State (IS) were killed in fresh hostilities in the southern Philippines on Monday, barely two weeks after former Muslim separatist guerrillas took over an autonomous region in the south.
Government security forces launched an air and artillery assault against Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) positions near a militant stronghold in the town of Datu Salibo in Maguindanao province, the military said.
Ground battles that followed left one soldier and five BIFF fighters dead, according to regional military chief Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana. Two other soldiers were killed in a separate clash near Marawi, the southern city destroyed by five months of fighting in 2017.
The BIFF splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the country’s largest separatist force that signed peace deal and last month assumed the leadership of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The BIFF pledged allegiance to IS and has been fighting against troops in parts of Mindanao that are considered MILF areas.
“We lost one soldier but the exchange of fire continues. An air strike started early this morning followed by a ground maneuver,” Sobejana said.
Sobejana said five BIFF fighters killed were under leader Abu Turaife, who has pledged allegiance to IS and is believed to be among the likely successors of Isnilon Hapilon. Intelligence reports indicated the bodies of the BIFF fighters had been retrieved and buried by their comrades.
Hapilon was the IS leader who carried out the attack on Marawi, destroying the area and leaving hundreds dead. He was killed in October 2017, five months after the battle began.
The city is in ruin and the region remains under military control to prevent the militants from regrouping.
Turaife split from the MILF when it signed the peace deal five years ago, saying he would continue with the fight for independence. He is believed to be backed by dozens of fighters.
Intelligence sources said Turaife’s fighters also joined forces with foreign militants who had escaped as troops pushed them out of Marawi or never made it there in the first place.
Turaife’s group did not send fighters to Marawi, but helped by launching attacks that served to divert military attention.
Military officials recently confirmed the presence of foreign fighters in the south, admitting that they have been involved in at least two attacks – a car bomb attack in Basilan island that left 11 dead last year and the January bombing of a church in Jolo island that left 23 dead. Philippine police had claimed that an Indonesian couple worked with Filipino militants in carrying out the Jolo attack, a claim discredited by Jakarta.
Clash near Marawi
The army reported a clash near Marawi between troops and a group led by Humam Abdul Najib (alias Abu Dar), a senior militant who helped plan and carry out the siege of the Islamic city.
Monday’s clash left two soldiers dead and four others wounded. The death toll was likely to go up.
“Fighting is ongoing and we have casualties,” local army brigade commander Col. Romeo Brawner told BenarNews.
Dar is believed to be a cousin of the Maute brothers who helped Hapilon plot the Marawi siege. While Hapilon and the Mautes died in the final days of the siege, Dar and other militants managed to flee as the military closed in.
Murad Ebrahim, who led MILF and serves as the BARMM interim leader, on Monday said the MILF would not hesitate to use force against militants if they continued to refuse to lay down their weapons. In the meantime, he said, MILF leaders on the ground are tasked with reaching out to the militants.
“For now our main strategy is we approach them to convince them in joining us. Maybe later on, if we cannot persuade them, we will have no choice but to use our security structure,” Murad said, adding there is a good chance they can be won over.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.