MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops backed by aircraft have assaulted local sympathizers of the Islamic State group, including dozens of militants who took cover in an unoccupied Islamic school in the country’s south, military officials said.
Troops launched an assault on the Maute group militants in Butig on Thursday following intelligence reports that they were continuing to make explosives after being blamed for a Sept. 2 bomb attack that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said on Saturday.
Troops were also searching for two militant leaders, brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute.
Amid the military offensive, about 40 militants took cover in a madrassa — a Muslim school — in Butig’s Bayabao village. Air force helicopters fired rockets and troops clashed with the militants in fighting that wounded two soldiers and killed or injured an undetermined number of guerrillas, military officials said.
The madrassa lies about a kilometer (half a mile) from the Butig town hall, which has been secured by government forces, officials said. More than 1,000 villagers fled in the predominantly Muslim region about 840 kilometers (520 miles) south of Manila.
The Maute militants initially were affiliated with an Indonesian terrorist suspect known only as Sanusi, who was killed in southern Marawi city, near Butig, in 2012. They later used black flags and arm and head bands with IS symbols in an attempt to capture the attention of the Middle East-based extremist group and possibly secure funding, military officials said.
The loosely organized group has more than 200 members with about 70 firearms, according to a government threat-assessment report.
The larger and main Muslim rebel group in the south, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has a large camp in the hinterlands of Butig, but the insurgents, who signed a peace deal with the government in 2014, were not supporting the Maute militants, Padilla said.
In March, the military launched a major offensive involving about 2,000 military personnel that killed 24 Maute militants and six soldiers and wounded dozens of other combatants in Butig in Lanao del Sur province.