By Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines (AA) – At least two Philippine soldiers have been killed and five others injured after a bomb blast was followed by an armed encounter with Daesh-inspired militants in a predominantly Muslim southern province.
A Western Mindanao Command spokesman confirmed Thursday that the fighting broke out at around 6.12 p.m. (1012GMT) Wednesday between troops of the 65th Infantry Battalion and local terrorists known as the “Maute group” in Butig town of Lanao del Sur.
"Prior to the said encounter, an improvised explosive device went off in the area of engagement," Maj. Filemon Tan Jr. said in a text message.
The wounded soldiers were rushed to a hospital in Iligan City before being transferred to a station in Zamboanga del Sur province for medical treatment.
Government forces launched a clearing operation at the encounter site, where they reportedly discovered at least 15 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) inside the Maute group’s “main encampment”.
Col. Roseller Morillo, 103rd Infantry Brigade commander, said in a report to Western Mindanao Command on Thursday that the mortar bombs are similar to those the group is believed to have used in recent attacks on transmission towers in the province.
He said four of the IEDs were assembled using 105mm howitzer rounds and were rigged for detonation, with one set up at the house of Abdullah Maute, a group leader.
"The 11 other IEDs were assembled using mortar shells, hand grenades, LPG tanks filled with nails which will serve as shrapnel,” he added. “A map drawn on a whiteboard showed where the IEDs were planted across Barangays [villages] Poctan and Ragayan, in anticipation of military assault."
Earlier this week, the military announced that 54 militants were killed in a series of clashes in Butig with the Maute group -- which has pledged allegiance to Daesh -- that also left two soldiers dead.
The dead reportedly included Wowwie Mimbantas, a son of a former leader of the country’s one-time largest Muslim rebel group, Aleem Mimbantas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF, which is involved in an ongoing peace process with the government, has denied supporting the group, conceding however that some members did have relatives in the outfit.
The military has blamed the group for a series of kidnappings in Lanao province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and holds it responsible for the beheading of the two civilians -- sawmill workers -- in April.