By Jeoffrey Maitem
A soldier and at least nine suspected Filipino militants linked with Islamic State were killed in clashes in the southern Philippines that began over the weekend, a military spokesman said Monday amid recent reports of foreign extremists hiding in the Mindanao region.
The fighting broke out on Saturday near Sharif Saydona Mustapha, a town in southern Maguindanao province, between government forces and supporters of Abu Turaife, a local Islamic State (IS) leader in the south.
Firefights went on until the next day and troops confirmed nine deaths on the enemy side, regional military spokesman Maj. Arvin Encinas said. The military said six of the nine dead enemy fighters had already been identified.
“We launched air and ground assaults against them,” Encinas told BenarNews, adding that clearing operations continued on Monday.
The soldier, identified as Sgt. Ahmad Mahmood of the Army’s 601st Brigade, was killed while another soldier and three militants were injured, Encinas told the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).
Turaife is one of the leaders of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a radical Muslim faction that split from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgent force that signed a peace deal with Manila and controls a Muslim autonomous region in the south.
BIFF says it is fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the southern region of the predominantly Catholic country. The group has now embraced the ideology of IS, which was defeated in wide swaths of the Middle East and is looking to expand operations in Asia and other areas, according to analysts.
The fresh fighting took place amid reports that several foreign militants associated with the IS leader in the Philippines, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, were hiding in the south, the site of two suicide bombings since January, one of which was perpetrated by an Indonesian couple, police in Jakarta said last week.
The latest bombing, which hit a military camp on Jolo, occurred on June 28 and left three soldiers and three civilians dead along with two suicide bombers. One has been identified as a 23-year-old Filipino member of an Abu Sayyaf unit under the command of Sawadjaan.
Sawadjaan succeeded Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in October 2017 near the end of a five-month battle that erupted when he and other militants seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi.