An army junior officer and a soldier were killed in clashes in the southern Philippines that also caused the deaths of four Filipino militants linked to the Islamic State (IS), military officials said Friday.
Second Lt. Junibert Zonio was among troops sent to the remote town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao province that encountered heavy fire from Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) Thursday, officials said.
Zonio, who was struck in the jaw by a bullet, died instantly, while another soldier also died, army spokesman Capt. Arvin John Encinas said.
Four BIFF militants – Ali Tudon, Alamid Yusop, Katod Bensar and one who was not identified – were killed and their bodies recovered, he said, adding that radio intercepts indicated additional enemy fighters could have been killed. Continuing air and artillery assaults in the nearby towns of Datu Paglas and Mamasapano are believed to have killed several BIFF fighters, based on military radio reports.
“The number of militants dead was based on two-way radio conversations we intercepted from factions of the terror group and from civilians on the ground,” Encinas said. “Our clearing operation is still on going. There will be no let up against these terrorists.”
Along with the two killed, 15 soldiers have been wounded in the assault that began Sunday.
Zonio finished the army’s Officer Cadet School last year and his first deployment was in Mindanao, the territory under military rule as troops track down remaining members of an IS-linked group that attacked the city of Marawi in 2017, Encinas said.
The five-month siege of Marawi ended in October with the death of Isnilon Hapilon, a wanted Abu Sayyaf terrorist who assumed the IS leadership here and several key leaders of the group. At least 1,200 people were killed, most of them enemy fighters.
Since then, President Rodrigo Duterte said intelligence reports indicated that dozens of fighters escaped. Military officials said surviving members were trying to recruit additional fighters.
Regional army chief Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana Jr. vowed to crush BIFF forces to “safeguard the civilians and put an end to this menace.”
The BIFF had splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main separatist group that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2014, and pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.
BIFF spokesman Abu Misri Mama denied the military report that militants were killed, saying they could have been civilians mistaken for fighters.
“We have reports that say some of the rockets of military planes hit fleeing civilians,” he told BenarNews.
The military offensive against BIFF militants began last weekend and apparently targeted leader Abu Turaipe, believed to be the most senior leader in line to inherit local IS leadership following the death of Hapilon. Turaipe’s forces number in the dozens and have been engaged in hit-and-run attacks with the military.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato contributed to this report.