MANILA: Philippine security forces foiled an attempt by Daesh-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on Tuesday to take over an urban center in the southern Philippines in a Marawi-style attack.
Five BIFF gunmen were killed and four others wounded as Army troops engaged the militants in a nine-hour house-to-house battle to stop them from occupying the seat of the municipal government of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao province.
Armored vehicles and infantry mortars provided support to the troops. The Air Force also conducted air strikes.
In a telephone interview, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, commanding officer, 33rd Infantry Battalion, told Arab News that the BIFF employed similar tactics to the Maute Group in Marawi City last year.
“They mixed with the local community,” Cabunoc said, adding that the BIFF had already laid down booby traps and improvised bombs (IED) in an area just 500 meters from the Datu Paglas town hall.
The official said that while the BIFF gunmen had not yet entered the urban center, they were already positioned just half a kilometer away. “They held a cluster of concrete houses in Sitio Mopac of Barangay Poblacion in the said municipality.”
Cabunoc said that prior to Tuesday’s clashes, BIFF fighters led by Sulaiman Tudon reportedly apprehended four people whom they accused of involvement in drug activities. They then used Shariah law to punish the four men.
By Sunday, residents in the area, sensing that there would be law-enforcement operations in their village after what the BIFF militants did, voluntarily evacuated to a safer place.
On Monday at about 5:00 a.m., town mayor Abubakar Paglas told Cabunoc that the BIFF fighters were already close to the urban center and might be planning to stage an attack anytime.
Early on Tuesday, troops with the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade composed of the 33rd Infantry Battalion, the 1st Mechanized Infantry Battalion and the 4th Special Action Battalion were deployed to the area.
Cabunoc said that the bulk of their forces were conducting operations against another group of BIFF fighters at the Liguasan marsh in Maguindanao so they diverted some troops to Datu Paglas.
The soldiers then attacked the enemy-held cluster of concrete houses held by the militants in the middle of a rice field.
“We confronted enemy snipers and improvised bombs as we seized the areas that were previously occupied by the terrorists,” Cabunoc said. Three Army troopers were wounded in the clashes.
The soldiers also recovered and disrupted three improvised bombs placed along the pathways toward the enemy-occupied positions.
After nine hours of fighting, the Air Force deployed its assets to blast the remaining BIFF positions before the clearing operations by the ground forces.
On Wednesday, Cabunoc said that they were still conducting clearing operations for unexploded ordnances (UXOs) and improvised explosive devices set up by the militants.
“We want to make sure the place is cleared then we will talk to the local authorities to hand over the affected areas, then we will facilitate the return of the affected residents who have sought refuge in the municipal gym,” he said.
Asked about the militant’s leader, Cabunoc said Tudon runs a madrasah in Sitio Mobac. His members are radicalized by his extremist interpretation of Islam.
“It was actually his family who tipped them off. As a backgrounder, I have been negotiating for his (Tudon’s) surrender through his brothers,” Cabunoc said.
The official further notes that Tudon comes from a decent family. His mother is a school principal, two of his brother are businessmen, one of his siblings is in London, and another is working as a nurse at a local hospital in the province.
“I don’t know what made him radicalized. But accordingly he married a girl from Liguasan marsh and that girl is connected to the violent extremist group,” Cabunoc said.
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, sent forces to support troops in Datu Paglas.
“Let us prevent the terrorists from sowing chaos in urban centers to imitate the tactics that they used in Marawi last year. We must work closely with civilian leaders in monitoring the enemy’s sinister plans in perpetrating violent actions to spoil the peace,” Sobejana said.