Night market bombing in Philippines kills 2, injures 37

By Maecy Alviar

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – At least two people died and 37 others were injured when a bomb exploded late Tuesday during a celebration in the southern Philippines.

The bomb went off in a densely populated area in the town of Isulan in Sultan Kudarat province where a night market and other activities are being held this week at the Hamungaya Festival in commemoration of the town’s founding anniversary.

Based on an initial investigation, the bomb was placed on a motorcycle parked in the area and went off as a military truck passed by.

Two other improvised explosive devices were diffused nearby.

Among the injured were two army soldiers securing the area.

“It seems the enemies are targeting the security forces guarding the festival activity,” Captain Arvin Encinas of the Army’s 6th Division said as quoted by local media.

No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, though the town’s police chief, Superintendent Celestino Daniel, said an initial probe points to "a few people”.

Encinas also hinted that the Daesh-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is the only group with “the strongest desire to initiate this kind of attack”.

The BIFF is a breakaway group of around 1,000 armed followers fighting for an independent Moro state, named after the region's indigenous Muslims in the south. Its members are mostly rag-tag rebels who engage in extortion, kidnapping, robbery and bombings.

Fighting between Moro groups in Philippines kills 25

By Roy Ramos

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – At least 25 people have been killed in fighting between Moro armed men and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao.

Twenty of the fatalities are fighters from the Daesh-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Jamaatul Mujajideen Wal Ansar, said army spokesman Colonel Gerry Besana as reported by the state-run Philippine News Agency.

Five Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) members of MILF also were killed while 10 were injured, three of whom are in critical condition and being treated in a military hospital in the province.

Besana said the fighting erupted last August when the militants tried to enter a MILF identified area in Tee village but were asked to leave.

MILF BIAF spokesperson Von Al-Haq said in a radio interview they will fight this group until they are immobilized or no longer visible inside MILF controlled areas.

“This is to free the civilian communities from terror, fear, danger and possible devastation of their places from the hands of this group…Terrorists are the enemy of humankind and their beliefs are beyond the teachings of Islam,” Al-Haq was quoted by Luwaran, the official website of the MILF, as saying.

MILF, a rebel group based in the southern Philippines, signed a peace agreement with the government in March 2014 but has yet to fully implement it.

The military has been working with MILF in the fight against terrorists that pledged allegiance to Daesh.

The entire island of Mindanao, where the province of Maguindanao is located, has been under martial law since May 23 until the year’s end following a siege by another Daesh-linked group in the city of Marawi.

Maute terror group rises from obscurity in Philippines

By Roy Ramos

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – For a month, a previously little-known militant group tied to Daesh has held out against government troops and air power in the southern Philippines.

Fighters from the Maute group, alongside those from the higher profile Abu Sayyaf group, have held parts of Marawi City since May 23 in an apparent attempt to create a Daesh-style “caliphate” on the island of Mindanao.

The apparently unexpected outbreak of fighting led President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law across Mindanao, the second-largest island in the archipelago.

The siege, which has seen hundreds killed and the city — the de facto capital of the region’s Muslims — reduced to rubble, has brought the Maute group to international attention.

Led by brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayyam Maute, the group was formed in 2012 as Dawlah Islamiya and was primarily involved in banditry and other criminality.

According to Philippine Star reporter John Unson, the brothers formed the group after returning from the Middle East, where they studied theology and taught in local schools in Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Other reports have also linked them to Egypt and Jordan.

They are members of Mindanao’s Maranaw clan and are originally from Butig, a town in Lanao del Sur province.

However, their fledgling group was one of dozens of armed groups in Mindanao, where armed conflict between the state and the Moros, as local Muslim clans are known, has raged since the 1960s.

The Mautes’ first major encounter with the army came early last year, when they established three strongholds in Lanao del Sur and displaced nearly 30,000 people.

– Targeted Manila

An attack on a military camp saw them behead a soldier before the military regained control after 10 days.

In April that year, they posted online images of two lumber workers who had been abducted from Butig being beheaded. The victims had been dressed in orange jumpsuits similar to those used in executions carried out and published online by Daesh.

The following August, Maute militants raided the provincial prison in Marawi City and freed inmates, including eight Maute group members.

A month later, a bomb attack in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, killed 14 people. Three Maute members were later arrested and footage of the attack found on mobile phones they held.

In November, militants raised the group’s black, Daesh-style flag above Butig town hall and held out against government troops for several weeks.

“These are indications that the Maute Group is trying to align itself with Daesh, as seen in the recovered video,” military chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano said following the Davao City arrests, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.

“We have also established their link with the Abu Sayyaf, as they revealed their intention to disrupt the government’s massive military operations in Sulu.”

Unlike most Mindanao-based militants, the group has also targeted Manila, where it placed an improvised explosive device close to the U.S. embassy last November.

Five alleged Maute members were arrested after police discovered and detonated the bomb.

According to Solicitor General Jose Calida, the Maute group was among four local groups to pledge allegiance to Daesh in November 2014.

The others were Abu Sayyaf, led by Isnilon Hapilon, Ansarul Khilafah Philippines and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

– Ramadan attack

Two years later, Duterte said he had been informed by intelligence officials that Daesh had “vitally connected to the group in the Philippines called the Maute.”

Observers have framed the Marawi City attack as an effort to attract attention from Daesh and a video has emerged of the brothers planning the attack with Hapilon for the start of Ramadan on May 26.

However, an attempt to arrest Hapilon on May 23 in Marawi forced the terrorists to respond and take the city days earlier than planned.

“They wanted to time the attack of Marawi during the first day of Ramadan, just like [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi did in June 2014 when [Daesh] occupied Mosul,” Ano told news broadcaster ABS-CBN.

Earlier this month, Duterte said the attack on Marawi had been planned after Hapilon fled Abu Sayyaf’s southwestern strongholds of Sulu and Basilan for Lanao del Sur to “conduct widespread atrocities and uprisings all across Mindanao” with the Mautes.

This would give the group the approval of the Daesh leadership in the Middle East, the government said.

The Maute brothers are believed to have personal ties to other militant groups in Mindanao, namely the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the BIFF.

The MILF, the largest rebel group in the region until it signed a peace deal with the government, controls the area around Butig.

According to military sources cited by the Rappler news portal, the brothers’ father, Cayamora Maute, was a senior official in the MILF. His sons later criticized the MILF leadership and pledged their loyalty to Daesh.

– Reinforcements

Cayamora Maute, as well as the brothers’ mother Farhana, were arrested earlier this month and have been charged with fomenting rebellion. Both are alleged to have played crucial roles within the terror organization as financiers and recruiters.

The brothers also had reported links to Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, the late founder of the BIFF, a MILF splinter group. They are said to have sent representatives to Kato in Maguindanao after he suffered a stroke.

These links have given the group access to materiel and training, notably from foreign Abu Sayyaf bomb-makers such as Malaysian terrorist Marwan, who was killed in January 2015 by police commandos.

The group also has other foreign connections.

The bodies of fighters from as far away as Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been found in Marawi City and recruitment in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that lie a five-hour boat ride from the southern Philippines, has been recognized as a problem by the region’s security forces.

There are also concerns that southeast Asian terrorists currently fighting with Daesh in Syria and Iraq will flock to join the Mautes and Abu Sayyaf as Daesh is squeezed from its Middle East strongholds.

Meanwhile, the battle in Marawi City is continuing. Earlier this week, government troops renewed their efforts in the hope of taking the southern districts held by the militants by the weekend, when Ramadan ends.

There are fears that with the conclusion of the holy month, fresh reinforcements could join the terrorists and even spread the rebellion further across Mindanao.

The apparent success of the militants in holding out against one of the most modern fighting forces in southeast Asia will also boost their standing among potential recruits.

UPDATE – Philippines: 4 Daesh-linked militants killed

UPDATES WITH DEATH TOLL OF MILITANTS, HOSTAGES RECOVERY

By Roy Ramos and Hader Glang

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – Philippine military Wednesday killed at least four Daesh-linked militants, who attacked military outposts and held hostage dozens of people in a public school in the country’s southern region.

Earlier, dozens of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) holed themselves up at a school in Pigcawayan town of North Cotabato province.

Pigcawayan Police Chief Inspector Realan Mamon told GMA News that more than 100 BIFF entered the school at 5.45 a.m. (2145 GMT) Wednesday.

Over 500 people from three villages in the town were forced to flee their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire between troops and militants, GMA News quoted a police spokesman as saying.

According to military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., four members of BIFF were killed in the operation.

Padilla said that two members of Citizen Armed Forces’ Geographical Unit were also wounded in the attack.

The operation was in progress as the BIFF fled under the cover of darkness, leaving behind hostages, he added.

Padilla confirmed that up to 30 hostages have been rescued.

Meanwhile, BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama told ABS-CBN News the school incident took place due to a fierce firefight with the government forces.

Mama denied the clashes with his group were related to the ongoing fight between the government forces and another Daesh-linked group — the Maute fighters. He added the BIFF strongly denounces actions of Maute group and said his group did not support them.

He said the clash with government forces were in retaliation to intensive shelling of BIFF strongholds.

The latest attack took place as government forces continue to wind down operations against Maute fighters in Marawi City.

The BIFF is said to be a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It had opposed the MILF’s peace agreement with the government.

The number of people killed in the ongoing firefight between government troops and Daesh-linked fighters in Marawi City in the southern island of Mindanao has risen to 310, a military official said on Friday.

Lt. Col. Emmanuel Garcia, commander of the Armed Forces’ 4th Civil Relations Group, said 225 Maute armed group members, 59 security personnel and 26 civilians have been killed since the outbreak of hostilities on May 23; 1,629 civilians were also rescued by troops, local government units and civil society organizations.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared a martial law in Mindanao on May 23 in response to clashes in Marawi City that began when police and military made efforts to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the so-called emir of Daesh in Southeast Asia.

Philippines: Daesh-linked groups offered peace talks

By Hader Glang

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – An incoming peace adviser for President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has said he is willing to talk peace with two Daesh-linked groups who have been sowing terror in the Philippines south.

In an interview with ABS CBN television news Friday, Duterte’s adviser Jesus Dureza said that if any group such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or the Abu Sayyaf wanted to talk peace and stop criminality it would be welcome.

Dureza underlined, however, that there is no excuse for either group’s criminal acts, but the president-elect is willing to hold talks with them if they show remorse.

“You don’t deal with terrorists, of course, because there’s no grievance on that, theirs are only plain criminality. But if the leader of Abu Sayyaf approached and said ‘I will not anymore kill, we will not longer kidnap, we will stop because there is change now’, who am I to say, ‘Go ahead, continue killing people’?” he said.

Dureza added that the groups will still have to “pay for all the crimes you committed”.

In August 2014 clips were uploaded to YouTube showing both the Mindanao-based hardline BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf pledging support to Daesh.

The BIFF, founded by Ameril Umbra Kato, broke with the country’s one time largest Moro rebel outfit the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 because of disagreements with the MILF’s central committee’s acceptance of autonomy rather than full independence for the country’s Muslim south.

Since Duterte was elected president in elections held May 9, he has made peace overtures to both Muslim and communist rebel groups.

He is set to assume office June 30.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be holding several captives, including a Canadian, Norwegian and a Filipino woman seized in September, and a Dutch national kidnapped more than three years ago in Tawi-Tawi province.

Since 1991, the group — armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles — has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortions.

It is notorious for beheading victims after ransoms have failed to be paid for their release.