THE death toll from the fighting in Lanao del Sur rose to 55 on Saturday as the military pressed its operation against a group of militants who are believed to be harboring foreign fugitive jihadists who had been training local extremists in bomb making and other terrorist activities.
Col. Billy dela Rosa, commander of the Army’s 51st Infantry Battalion, said his troops have tallied the deaths of at least 55 members of the group led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute at the outskirts of Butig town in Lanao del Sur.
Dela Rosa said his troops only found the bodies of three rebel fatalities while the others were likely dragged away by their comrades, but government troops found rifles, including a Barret sniper rifle, and other military materiel at the site of the battle.
Dela Rosa said they also recovered photographs of young boys brandishing assault rifles and were apparently recruited into the Maute group.
But the officer said the group has decreased from around 400 on Thursday to a few dozens on Saturday and the military is trying to verify reports that Abdullah Maute was wounded in the weeklong offensive.
Abdullah’s brother Omar is also believed to have been killed on Thursday along with an Indonesian jihadist identified as Muhammad Mukhtar. However, the military could not find the bodies of the two slain leaders.
The Maute brothers are believed to be members or sympathizers of Jemaah Islamiya and Omar is supposedly married to an Indonesian jihadist who even underwent training in the Middle East.
Mukhtar, on the other hand, is believed to be part of the group of jihadists from Indonesia and Malaysia, who sought refuge in Mindanao after they were hunted down in their own countries.
Western Mindanao Command spokesman Major Filemon Tan said Butig town is now under military control as the rebels fled in small groups to the mountains surrounding the town ranges after the military unleashed artillery fire and aerial fire on rebel positions Thursday.
Tan said four soldiers were killed during the fighting, but declined to identify them pending the notification of their families.
Also on Saturday, the Provincial Social Welfare Development Office of the Lanao del Sur appealed for more supplies for the thousands of civilians who fled the fighting and are now billeted in mosques and evacuation centers.
PSWD officer Marhalanny Alonto said in a radio interview that they are in need of food and medicine supplies for 4,000 families that fled from 14 villages.
Meanwhile, in North Cotabato, a road side bomb was detonated by a passing police patrol vehicle bearing three policemen.
A belated report reaching Camp Crame in Quezon City said Chief Inspector Sunny Leoncito were with two other policemen on board a truck when their Isuzu Dmax hit an improvise explosive device along in Matalam, Cotabato at about 9:15 a.m. Friday.
The three-man police party were on their way to a community gathering in Barangay Kibia when they hit the bombs, badly damaging the vehicle but leaving the three policemen unhurt.
Shortly after the explosion, three suspects were spotted just near the blast site and policemen engaged them but failed who managed to escape towards a mountainous terrain.