- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2019

COTABATO, Philippines (AP) - Philippine troops, backed by airstrikes and artillery fire, killed several militants aligned with the Islamic State group in a new offensive in the marshy heartland of the country’s south, the military said Tuesday.

Army Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said several key commanders, including a long-wanted Singaporean militant, were among the more than 100 militants who came under attack at daybreak Monday in the hilly hinterland near Shariff Saydona Mustapha town in Maguindanao province.

One soldier was killed and seven others were wounded in the firefight in the village of Inaladan, where rocket-firing air force helicopters and bomber planes pounded a militant camp before army troops came in. The militants split into groups and withdrew, Sobejana said.

Sporadic gunbattles were continuing Tuesday as troops pursued the militants belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Dawla Islamiya, two small groups aligned with the Islamic State group. At least six bodies of suspected militants were found at the scene of the clashes, military officials said.

Sobejana said up to 20 militants may have been killed but troops were still attempting to take full control of the camp, where most of the slain gunmen were hit by the airstrikes and artillery fire.

Troops were checking if Singaporean militant Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman, also known as Muawiya, along with local commander Esmael Abdulmalik, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Toraype, and bomb-maker Salahudin Hassan were among the wounded or slain militants, he said.

“The objective is to eliminate these armed groups once and for all,” Sobejana said.

The militants have been blamed for recent deadly bombings in the region and shootings that killed four soldiers in Maguindanao. The militants include former members of the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace deal with the government and whose leaders now head a new Muslim autonomous region that includes Maguindanao.

Thousands of fighters in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are to be demobilized under the peace deal. Sobejana said the Moro rebels were not tapped by the military to help fight the extremists to help them shift to normal life.

Among the militants targeted by Monday’s offensive were survivors of a deadly siege of southern Marawi city by Islamic State group-aligned militants in May 2017 which was quelled by troops after five months. The militants suffered their largest loss of commanders in Marawi in a serious blow to the Islamic State group’s effort to gain a foothold in the region.

In a separate army offensive Monday, troops clashed with more than 20 Muslim militants near Pagayawan town in Lanao del Sur province not far from Marawi in fighting that killed two soldiers and two militants, army Col. Romeo Brawner said.


Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.

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