AT least 11 members of a rebel group have been killed in the southern Philippines by government troops who say the militants had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).
This comes after Philippines troops, backed by bomber planes, fired artillery at the group on Sunday in a standoff that left at least four soldiers wounded.
According to Reuters, there have been unconfirmed reports that the Maute group had raised the black Islamic State flag in an abandoned town hall in a municipality in Lanao del Sur they were hiding in since Saturday.
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“This was expected since they have long been professing allegiance to the foreign terror group,” said Marine Colonel Edgard Arevalo, a military spokesman.
“This is still part of the Maute Group’s agenda in courting support and encouraging similar-minded individuals to support ISIS (Islamic State),” he added.
The group is a part of small militant groups who have been behind years of unrest in the south.
Local communities have been fleeing the area following the assault which erupted on Sunday. Local media has reported at least 16, 000 people have evacuated the area, however, the military has not provided details on how many have.
According to the International Business Times UK, as many as 100 militants belonging to the group were hiding in multiple locations Butig town including an unoccupied Islamic school.
The online news publication added ground forces were on Sunday aided by bomber aircraft as the military hunts for two key leaders – brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute.
The Maute group comprises of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) militants and some foreign fighters.
The Philippine government has blamed the group for a bombing at a street market in President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown on September 2 in which 14 people were killed and dozens wounded.
The police arrested several group members in October and found video clips of them pledging allegiance to IS.
President Duterte has warned of late about IS militants establishing themselves in the Philippines and said his country needed to avoid “contamination”.
“What we are afraid of is if the ISIS are forced out (of Iraq and Syria) and if (they) lose the land mass, they will try to come to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines because they have declared the caliphate,” he said in a speech late on Saturday.
Fears are mounting over the likelihood of Asia being the next hotbed for Islamic State activities especially with the caliphate losing its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, forcing foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to go home.
This weekend saw examples of that fear becoming a reality with the attack in the Philippines and the capture of militants planning an attack in Indonesia.
Two militants, who allegedly planned to attack prominent places in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, were arrested by the country’s anti-terror squad. The targets included the Myanmar Embassy.
National police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said Sunday the authorities were led to the men following an interrogation of suspected bomb maker Rio Priatna Wibawa, who was arrested this past week in northern Aceh.
Police claim Wibawa had sufficient explosives to make bombs three times more powerful than those used in the 2002 Bali bombings in which over 200 people were killed.
Amar said the men told authorities they wanted to retaliate against Myanmar for recent attacks on Rohingya Muslims.
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press.