AFP/Datu Salibo, Philippines
The Philippines’ largest Muslim militant group has launched a deadly offensive against a splinter faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, police said yesterday.
The fighting between the two groups began about two weeks ago in the marshy farmlands around the southern town of Datu Salibo on Mindanao island, regional police spokeswoman Tara Leah Cuyco said.
Clashes between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its offshoot, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), took place on Friday and Saturday, with six fighters from the original group killed.
“The MILF is trying to force the BIFF out of the area. They do not want any trouble,” Chief Inspector Cuyco told AFP.
A MILF guerrilla leader told a video journalist working for AFP on Saturday: “We do not want them here.
It’s an order from the higher-ups.”
The MILF, which has more than 10,000 fighters, has waged a decades-long guerrilla war, first for independence and later autonomy for the large Islamic minority in the south of the largely Catholic Asian nation.
It signed a peace treaty with the Philippine government in 2014 and is observing a ceasefire with the Philippine government while waiting for the passage of a proposed law that would grant self-rule to the Muslim areas of the Mindanao region.
Senior MILF leaders have warned President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver on government commitments under the peace accord, chiefly the autonomy law, or risk frustrating MILF members and causing them to defect to the BIFF and other pro-IS groups.
The BIFF, said by the military to have a few hundred armed fighters, has been among several small armed groups in Mindanao that have pledged alliance to the IS.
The fighting comes as the military fought a near three-month battle in Marawi, a Muslim city 100km to the north.
The fighting in Marawi is being led by two other Muslim rebel factions, the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf. The Marawi battle has left 573 militants and 128 soldiers and police dead, along with at least 45 civilians, according to an official tally.
The Maute group’s stronghold in Marawi City is “getting smaller” but there are about 50 to 60 enemies battling soldiers, more than what the military estimated.
Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman, said the area being held by the Maute terrorists has been reduced to just over half a kilometre grid square.
“I am happy to inform you that military operations in the area is progressing very well. Previously, we have been talking about slightly over a kilometre grid square, and then a kilometre grid square. Now, it’s slightly over half a kilometre grid square. So the world of the enemy is getting smaller,” Padilla told reporters.
But he clarified that there are still 50 to 60 enemies left, higher than the 20 to 40 Maute members earlier announced.
“The recent validation by our ground commanders also disclosed that we still face about 50 to 60 armed fighters contrary to previous announcements and assessments that we said they were less than this,” Padilla said. He added that more than 30 hostages are being held by the Maute Group.
Padilla said fighting has been concentrated in smaller areas but the military face a challenging job in clearing the city because of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were left by the enemy.
“The main battle area remains complex with the continued discovery of many IEDs and unexploded ordnance. And this is a part of the continuing challenges that we are facing and continuing to address,” Padilla said.
“But operations are progressing very well, and we have had no one killed in action for the last eight days.
Unfortunately, two soldiers lost their legs because of tripping into IEDs that were left in a building that they were clearing,” he added.
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