Philippines: Airstrikes killed 15 IS group-linked militants

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine airstrikes have killed 15 Muslim militants linked to the Islamic State group, including a suspected Indonesian militant, while one of Southeast Asia’s top terror suspects was seriously wounded in the country’s south, the military chief said Sunday.

Military Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said the body of the suspected Indonesian militant, known by his nom de guerre Mohisen, was recovered by troops along with three dead Filipino followers of militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was seriously wounded in the hilly outskirts of Butig town in Lanao del Sur province.

Eleven other militants were reportedly killed, Ano said, citing intelligence, but added their bodies have not been found.

Hapilon was wounded in the arm and was losing blood after air force aircraft, including FA50 supersonic fighter jets, dropped six 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs Wednesday night and Thursday on a militant encampment in an ongoing offensive, Ano and another air force official said. It was the first time that the FA50s, which were acquired from South Korea in late 2015 as the military’s only fighter jets, were deployed in a combat mission.

Four FA50s have been delivered and the rest of 12 jets are to be delivered by July, air force officials said. President Rodrigo Duterte has criticized the FA50s as being inadequate for counterinsurgency operations and good only as fly-by aircraft for ceremonies.

Hapilon was being moved around by his men on a makeshift stretcher but could not escape from Lanao, about 830 kilometers (520 miles) south of Manila, because artillery-backed troops have blocked possible exit points, Ano said.

“We’re making it very difficult for them to move around and survive,” Ano told The Associated Press by telephone.

The military will ask Indonesian authorities for help in confirming the identity and background of Mohisen, who was not among the foreigners previously monitored as having joined Filipino militant groups in the south.

Hapilon reportedly was designated to lead an Islamic State group branch in Southeast Asia and is on the U.S. Department of Justice list of most-wanted terrorists worldwide with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. He moved to Butig from his stronghold on southern Basilan island a month ago with about 30 fighters to look for a base, Ano said.

IS group commanders apparently wanted Hapilon to set up a base in Lanao, a vast region that offers more security than his mountain base on Basilan island, so foreign militants could have a springboard to expand their influence, he said.

The ongoing offensive “is significant because it will derail their plan to expand the IS presence to mainland Mindanao,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, referring to the southern Philippine region, the scene of decadeslong uprisings by minority Muslims.

Duterte has repeatedly warned the emergence of Islamic State-influenced militant groups is fast looming as a major national security threat. While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, he has ordered the military to destroy smaller but brutal extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf, which is dreaded for cross-border kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

Duterte has asked the two Muslim rebel groups in talks with the government not to help extremists under attack by troops, warning that may bring them in a new conflict with Manila.

The elusive Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise on commando assaults, pledged allegiance to the IS group in 2014.

He then organized an alliance called Dawlatul Islam Wilayatul Mashriq, which is now believed to include at least 10 small militant groups including some Abu Sayyaf factions and the Maute armed group, which he was meeting in Lanao when the military launched the airstrikes using the FA50s and OV-10 bomber planes.

The Maute and the Ansar Al Khilafah Philippines, another group under Hapilon’s nascent alliance, have been linked to a Sept. 2 bombing of a night market that killed 15 people and wounded 69 others in southern Davao city, the president’s hometown, and a failed bombing at Manila’s popular Rizal Park and a promenade near the U.S. Embassy last year.