By Jeoffrey Maitem
Government security forces killed two more pro-Islamic State militants in the restive southern Philippines, bringing to 15 the number of militants slain in a week of clashes, the military said Wednesday.
But fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the country’s largest rebel force, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), killed a government militiaman during a raid in the southern town of Pikit.
Superintendent Bernard Tayong, a local police spokesman, said the unarmed militiaman, Rodel Abellanida, 33, was tending his farm animals in the village of Bualan Wednesday when he was attacked by 10 heavily armed BIFF guerrillas.
Tayong said the militants were led by Guinda Mamaluba, a sub-leader of the BIFF.
“They opened fire and hit their target,” he said, adding the gunmen immediately fled.
The BIFF intensified their harassment against government militiamen and vital installations after they lost 13 fighters last week in clashes in several townships in the province of Maguindanao. Soldiers had also captured five BIFF fighters.
On Monday, another clash erupted between troops and BIFF men, leaving two gunmen dead and two others wounded.
Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, spokesman of the military’s Joint Task Force Central, told reporters the attack was meant to avenge the capture of their comrades.
“They are desperate to get back at the Army, they continue to harass our detachments,” Besana said, adding that no casualty was reported on the government side.
Regional military commander Maj. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega said tight security measures have been imposed in the wake of the attacks.
“These nonsense attacks of the ISIS-inspired BIFF extremist group show that they can no longer handle the pressure that we have imposed on them. The full force of the law has to be implemented,” Dela Vega said, using another name for the IS.
“Time and again, we have given them options to lay down their arms and surrender or they will deal with the pressure as we intensify our mandate to get rid of all lawless elements in our area,” he said.
The BIFF has pledged allegiance to the IS, but did not send fighters to the southern city of Marawi, which has been reduced to rubble after five months of gun battles and airstrikes that killed 1,200 people, mostly militants, last year.
The military concentrated its combat operations in Maguindanao and nearby provinces after intelligence reports said militants were recruiting for another siege similar to Marawi. Several foreigners from the region and the Middle East have also been arrested since December.
Militants led by Isnilon Hapilon – the acknowledged leader of IS in the Philippines – took over Marawi and engaged security forces in five months of vicious fighting that ended in October after Hapilon along with several Filipino militant leaders were killed in a clash.
The BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member MILF in 2008. In 2014, the larger rebel group signed a peace deal with Manila in exchange for expanded autonomy.
The BIFF had vowed to push on with the separatist fight, attracting younger, more hardline members of the MILF.
‘Thankful’ for Indonesian, Malaysian help
In Manila, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the Philippine government has been working closely with Indonesia and Malaysia to combat terrorism and guard common sea borders against movements of militants.
“We are very thankful both to Indonesia and Malaysia,” Cayetano told reporters, adding that his counterparts as well as the police and military leaders of the three countries recently gathered in Manila “to help us deal with Marawi.”
At the height of the Marawi crisis last year, Indonesia and Malaysia offered intelligence help to track down militants from their countries planning to reinforce their comrades in Mindanao. This helped tremendously curtail militant movement, Cayetano said.
Malaysian and Indonesian nationals were among foreign fighters killed in Marawi, but Philippine military officials said others might have escaped the five-month battle.
Indonesia proposed a “mini-Interpol” for Southeast Asia in October at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines, shortly after Manila defeated the militants. Malaysia and Indonesia have also been engaged in trilateral aerial and maritime patrols with the Philippines after the Marawi siege.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.