Philippine airstrikes target IS-linked militants near Marawi, 5 killed


MANILA: Philippine military airstrikes and ground assaults targeted a group of Islamic State group-linked militants in an offensive that reportedly killed five extremists and forced more than 5,000 villagers to flee to safety in the south, officials said Monday.
Army Col. Romeo Brawner said the offensive Sunday sparked gunbattles between troops and the extremists in Tubaran town in a mountainous region of Lanao del Sur province and the military was verifying reports that at least of five militants had been killed.
Troops captured a jungle camp where they found empty ammunition boxes, and were pursuing the militants, Brawner said.
The offensive targeted about 40 militants led by Owayda Benito Marohombsar, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Dar. He was among those who led a five-month siege of Marawi city, not far from Tubaran, but managed to escape before troops quelled the uprising last October.
More than 5,000 villagers from Tuburan and two other nearby towns fled when they heard the brief airstrikes, regional assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong said. He said more than 700 moved into evacuation centers while others stayed with relatives.
Abu Dar’s presence in the hinterlands of Tubaran, where he has many relatives, was confirmed last month when his men killed a village leader who resisted their plan to venture into town. The village leader’s relatives notified the military about Abu Dar’s presence and helped troops hunt down the militants, Adiong said.
Abu Dar is the only locally prominent leader of the bloody Marawi siege who is confirmed to have escaped from the Islamic city after being wounded in the massive military offensive.
He reportedly brought more than 30 million pesos ($577,000) in looted cash out of Marawi, which he could use for militant recruitment and to rebuild his battered organization, Adiong said.
The Marawi siege, which began on May 23 last year, killed more than 1,100 people, mostly militants. It left the mosque city in rubble, caused President Rodrigo Duterte to place the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic country under martial law and prompted fears that the Islamic State group was gaining a foothold in the Asian region. Sporadic offensives continue against militants in other southern provinces.
Adiong said it would take an effective counter-radicalization program and other social programs to fight new generations of militants.
“The government’s program against these terrorists should really be good, long-term and comprehensive,” he said. “It won’t just take bullets to defeat them.”
In General Salipada K. Pendatun town in Maguindanao province, south of Lanao del Sur, military officials halted artillery fire in an offensive against Muslim militants aligned with Abu Dar’s group after a blast killed a pregnant villager over the weekend, officials said.
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, an army infantry battalion commander, said an investigation was underway to determine if the explosive that killed the woman and wounded another on a farm in the village of Lower Idtig came from the military or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
The two-week offensive by the military has left 17 gunmen of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters dead and destroyed one of their bomb-making bases, the military said.