COTABATO, Philippines—Five Muslim rebels from a large group that is helping the Philippine government fight extremism were killed Friday in the latest clash with Islamic State group-linked militants, security officials said.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters died in the clash with extremists belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who tried to set up a bomb in Datu Salibo town in southern Maguindanao province, said police Senior Superintendent Agustin Tello.
The larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a 2014 Muslim autonomy deal and has served as a government ally in its fight against extremism, has been battling a pro-IS faction of the militant group since early this month.
The fighting between the two rebel groups started when BIFF rebels detonated a bomb that wounded several fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which retaliated in early August. Army troops have backed the Moro rebel front fighters with artillery fire and airstrikes, army Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said.
More than 40 rebels from both sides have been killed in the sporadic clashes in Datu Salibo and outlying towns in Maguindanao province’s vast marshland, Besana said.
Claims by the Islamic State group online that the BIFF rebels have killed dozens of Moro Islamic Liberation guerrillas in the ongoing clashes were extremist propaganda, he said.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has dropped its secessionist bid in exchange for broader autonomy for minority Muslims in the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic nation. It has observed a cease-fire with the Philippine military for years and has renounced terrorism.
Besana said both sides slowly built trust and were fighting “a common enemy right now, which are the IS-inspired terrorist groups.”
“The MILF rebels say they didn’t fully trust the soldiers at first but now they feel closer, there is a good flow of communications,” Besana said. “We regard them as brothers and call them as counterparts.”
The Moro rebels’ mastery of the terrain is a big help to the military as troops confront the rise of new pro-Islamic State groups, including those behind a deadly siege in southern Marawi city that has dragged on for nearly three months, he said.