MARAWI, Philippines -- Philippine troops killed at least seven Muslim insurgents aligned with the Islamic State group in a recent offensive in the south and recovered 45 heavy firearms and several bombs and land mines that were to be used in future attacks, military officials said Thursday.
About 60 Muslim militants were in the remote camp near Maguing in Lanao del Sur province when it was attacked Tuesday by fighter jets and army forces, military officials said. It was not immediately clear whether their leader, Abu Zacariah, was among those killed or managed to escape. One soldier was killed and five others were wounded in the fighting, the officials said.
Zacariah has been implicated in past attacks and bombings and is suspected of being the newly designated leader of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, said army infantry brigade commander Brig. Gen. Jose Maria Cuerpo II, who oversaw Tuesday’s offensive.
Two factions of the militant group Daulah Islamiyah, linked to the Islamic State group, appear to have merged and camped near Maguing in January. At the time, some power transmission towers in the region were bombed in attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, prompting the military to intensify its surveillance and prepare for an offensive, Cuerpo said.
“The troops were ready to attack but they assessed it would be difficult to storm the encampment, which was protected by heavy weapons,” Cuerpo told reporters. He said that prompted him to first launch airstrikes against the insurgents.
Air force fighter jets dropped a dozen bombs, then army troops launched a ground attack and overran the camp. The insurgents fled in different directions and were pursued by troops, military officials said.
The military denied reports that the troops encountered guerrillas belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group which signed a peace pact with the government in 2014 and is now helping govern a Muslim autonomous region in the south.
“We’d like to assure our partners in the MILF that we respect the peace accord,” military spokesman Col. Ramon Zagala said. “We are on track and we’re only targeting the peace spoilers.”
Daulah Islamiyah members were involved in the 2017 siege of Marawi, a southern Islamic city where hundreds of militants waving Islamic State group-style black flags occupied commercial buildings and villages and took hostages. Filipino troops, backed by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft, quelled the five-month siege, which left about 1,200 people dead — mostly militants — and destroyed the mosque-studded city’s commercial center and outlying residential communities.
The military has been launching offensives against small armed groups allied with the militants who laid siege on Marawi, including the Abu Sayyaf, which has been blacklisted by the U.S. and the Philippines for past bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country.