World News

Philippine Agents Kill Militants Who Helped Fight Islamic State-Linked Forces

Posted May 28, 2018 3:02 p.m. EDT

MANILA, Philippines — Nine militants from a group that helped the Philippine army hunt down Islamic State-linked fighters in the country’s south have been killed in a firefight with police, their colleagues said Monday.

The victims, members of military wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, were rounded up Friday by government agents taking part in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

The men had identified themselves as MILF fighters in their encounter with government forces but were still stripped of their firearms and killed, according to a complaint that the group filed to a committee monitoring a cease-fire between MILF fighters and the government.

After the men were disarmed, “they were deliberately shot by the operatives, which resulted to their instant death,” the MILF complaint read, adding that at least three others, including a woman, were also wounded.

The municipal police commander, Chief Inspector Sunny Leoncito, said the government forces had been seeking to arrest two men in a drug case, both of whom were believed to have been killed in the raid. But what was to have been a routine anti-drug operation turned into an hourlong gunbattle on the outskirts of the town of Matalam.

The militants who survived later surrendered and gave up their firearms, including two sniper rifles, several assault rifles and handguns, as well as a rocket-propelled grenade. However, the government operatives did not find drugs on the fighters.

A MILF spokesman, Vol Al-Haq, said the group would file a “strong protest” with the government over the killings. He said he believed that a brief firefight occurred with the government agents before the MILF fighters identified themselves, and that they might have believed they were being attacked by another armed group.

“After they surrendered, they were massacred,” the spokesman said, adding that the group was demanding an impartial investigation jointly carried out with a third party or a nongovernmental organization.

“We don’t deal in drugs and never have,” he said. “Even before the assumption of Duterte as president, we already had our own program that discourages illegal activities, including drugs.”

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the largest of many guerrilla groups in the southern Philippines and has about 12,000 armed fighters. It fought the Philippine army for independence in the southern third of the island of Mindanao, but in 2014, after nearly 17 years of war, it dropped its bid for independence to settle for autonomy.

But four years since the signing of a peace deal, the Philippines Congress still has not passed a law creating the autonomous region that would be governed primarily by the group’s officials.

The MILF has kept its end of the bargain and last year helped the army hunt down militants tied to the Islamic State who had escaped after attacking the southern city of Marawi for five months, leaving scores dead.

It did not field fighters to join the army in Marawi; instead, an elite MILF jungle unit battled Islamic State-linked fighters in another area of the southern Philippines.

Last month, the group warned it would not disarm as planned under the peace deal if Congress failed to pass the autonomy law. Duterte has promised to push the law through Congress, which is dominated by members of his party.

The Senate and the House of Representatives previously failed to pass the law, largely on fears that giving the minority Muslims greater power in the mineral-rich but impoverished south could lead to more violence.

In particular, a clash in 2015 between the MILF and a police commando unit left 44 officers dead after they strayed into a rebel-held area as they were hunting a wanted Malaysian terrorist.

Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, of the army’s 6th Infantry Division, which has jurisdiction over Matalam, said the government was trying to contain the situation and would help investigate the episode.

He said the military valued the MILF forces in the volatile region for their help in going after militants linked to the Islamic State.

“We have to give the joint cease-fire committee enough time to carry out the investigation” into the killings, Sobejana said.