Muslim rebels who stormed a southern Philippine town and occupied a school are on the run after freeing dozens of hostages following a day-long crisis, the military said on Wednesday.Last updated: June 21 2017 08:50 PM
The armed men slipped out of the public elementary school in the village of Malagakit as darkness fell, said Captain Arvin Encinas, an army spokesman.
"They escaped as troops slowly moved in and darkness fell," Encinas said.
Troops killed at least four militants, who belonged to an armed group that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist organisation, said Captain Nap Alcarioto, another army spokesman.
Two government militiamen were wounded in the fighting, which forced nearly 1,000 residents to flee their homes in Malagakit and two other villages in the town of Pigcawayan in North Cotabato province, 896 kilometres south of Manila, he added.
The armed men, numbering around 200, had planned to attack an army detachment in the nearby village of Simsiman, but were repulsed by government militiamen, who blocked their advance until troops arrived to reinforce them, Alcarioto said.
The militants then occupied the school and seized nearly 40 civilians, including 12 minors, as human shields. They also laid out explosives around the school to stop the soldiers, he added.
Thirty-one hostages, including 12 minors, were freed by the militants or were able to escape from the school before the militants withdrew.
Six hostages, all believed to be Muslim, were still unaccounted for, Alcarioto said.
The gunmen were members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway faction of a larger Muslim separatist rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 2014.
The group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for a series of military offensives in North Cotabato and nearby Maguindanao province.
The BIFF has been blamed in the past for bombings and kidnappings in the central part of the southern region of Mindanao.
The group is separate from the Islamic State-allied militants who have been fighting government forces for almost a month in Marawi City, more than 80 kilometres away from Pigcawayan.
The attack in Pigcawayan "is not in any way related to the ongoing operation against the rebellion in Marawi City," said Colonel Edgard Arevalo, a military spokesman, adding that the BIFF is trying to establish itself as a force still to be reckoned with.
The conflict in Marawi City began on May 23 when hundreds of militants went on a rampage after government forces tried to arrest a local Islamic State leader.
President Rodrigo Duterte had declared martial law in the southern region of Mindanao to boost the military offensive to clear Marawi City of the militants.
More than 380 people have been killed in the crisis, including 268 militants and 66 government forces. The gunmen have also killed 26 civilians, while 24 people died from illnesses in evacuation centres.
The fighting has displaced more than 300,000 residents and left Marawi City in ruins, with houses and buildings torched by the militants or destroyed by bombs from the military airstrikes.