Two rebels belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were killed in a clash with the Philippine military on Sunday, days after more than 100 BIFF militants occupied a market in the Maguindanao region of Mindanao.
Three members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group were also killed in a separate firefight with the military in Basilan, an island just off the coast of Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula.
The incidents happened shortly after Malaysian authorities arrested eight suspected Abu Sayyaf militants with the assistance of the Philippine military. The militants apparently fled their bases in the Sulu Sea in March and headed to Borneo, where they may have been planning kidnappings for ransom.
Malaysian authorities said on Tuesday its police had killed five Abu Sayyaf rebels in a Monday night shootout in the state of Sabah. Those killed reportedly included Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Mabar Binda, who was on the Philippine government’s wanted list.
Mindanao has seen a resurgence of conflict in the past two months, threatening a fragile peace between the Philippine government and the Moro Muslims who live predominantly in the west of the island.
The Philippines signed a peace agreement in 2014 with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in which that group laid down its arms in exchange for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which was formalized in early 2019.
The BIFF, however, broke away from the MILF and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). The new BARMM government has said it is attempting to smooth tensions between rival Moro factions and convince the BIFF to lay down its arms.
According to a report by the peacebuilding organization International Alert Philippines, BIFF-related violence remains rampant in the BARMM, although the number of conflict incidents dropped by 26 percent from 2018 to 2019.
The Philippine military is countering IS-inspired insurgents on several fronts, including Abu Sayyaf and the Maute militants who laid siege to the city of Marawi in 2017. The BIFF is not strictly aligned with those groups, but it expressed its support for the 2017 siege.
The BIFF has escalated its attacks on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in recent months, including the May 16 firefight that left two BIFF rebels dead.
In March, clashes between the BIFF and the AFP led to the displacement of more than 66,000 people in Maguindanao.
Tensions have remained high since then. On the morning of May 8, more than 100 BIFF members occupied a town market in Maguindanao for several hours, forcing many families to evacuate their homes. The group did not fire their guns in the market and were cleared away by the AFP by late Saturday morning, a military spokesperson said.
In a visit to Maguindanao days after the occupation, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was “moved to tears” by the recent clashes and would consider resigning if his government could not bring peace to the Bangsamoro region.
“If I cannot at least [bring] the barest minimum of a peaceful place then I have no reason to stay. It would be a failure, a real failure. I must be frank enough to say, you know, sorry,” Duterte said.
The president also warned the BIFF he would retaliate with an “all-out offensive” should the violence continue. “If they continue to kill civilians and if they continue to take hostages of a town, if they continue to kill my soldiers, I will be forced to do what is necessary,” he said.
The Philippine National Police on Sunday said it had moved to an offensive mode against BIFF members, citing heightened recruitment activities amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The recent clashes come as the fate of a key military agreement between the Philippines and the United States hangs in the balance. Washington and Manila have yet to sign a new Visiting Forces Agreement, which could lead hundreds of U.S. troops and defense contractors to be pulled out of Mindanao within months, the South China Morning Post reported Monday.
In an interview last March with The Diplomat, terrorism expert Ronan Gunaratna questioned the military’s decision to ramp up military options against the communist New People’s Army rebel group at the possible expense of focusing on IS-inspired militants.