MANILA: Hundreds of gunmen attacked troops in a southern Philippines town today in a bomb attack that may have been intended to help Islamic militants involved in a nearby urban war, authorities said.
Five civilians were used as human shields had disappeared, and soldiers pursued the attackers who were quickly withdrawn, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila.
Padilla said the gunmen attacked a military post at dawn in Pigcaguayan, an agricultural village about 100 miles from Marawi where combatants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group fought troops for a month .
The attack could be a distraction tactic to ease pressure on militants in Marawi, local police commander Chief Inspector Realan Mamon said.
Padilla said the attackers belonged to the Islamist bangsamoros freedom fighters (BIFF), one of the four armed groups in the Philippine region of southern Mindanao that analysts say have pledged allegiance to IS.
He said the armed men attacked the outpost slightly defended and exchanged arms with the troops.
“It is already resolved. The enemy withdrew … they failed,” said Padilla, adding that the troops were in pursuit of the militants.
Local authorities reported for the first time that the armed men had occupied a school before the arrival of the students.
But Padilla did not mention any incidents at school.
The area around Pigcaguayán consists of marshes, mountains and farmland.
Padilla said there were no confirmed victims, but the army had not yet located the five originally used as human shields.
The mayor of the city of Pigcaguayán, Eliseo Garsesa, said that 200 armed men were involved, while a police report indicated that there were around 300.
Padilla said the BIFF, a small insurgent group that would have a few hundred fighters, apparently tried to take advantage of the fact that the military is focusing on the Marawi war.
“In general, take advantage of the situation … we have a very slightly defended outposts and think our forces elsewhere in the province,” Padilla said.
Muslim rebels have been fighting for more than four decades from an independent or autonomous region in the mostly Catholic southern nation, the conflict claimed more than 120,000 lives.
Major rebel organizations signed or exercised peace accords with the government, but small strong line of groups such as BIFF. Pledged to continue fighting.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the southern region of Mindanao on May 23 immediately after marauding sailors fought for Marawi.
His assault on Marawi unleashed the unprecedented urban war that claimed hundreds of lives and Duterte warned part of an IS campaign to establish a base in Mindanao.
The fighting left Marawi, the largest Muslim city in the Philippines, largely ruined.
The activists involved in the fight against Marawi come mainly from Abu Sayyaf Maute and organizations that have joined the BIFF. Under the umbrella of the IS, according to the government.
The army said foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, have also joined the Malawi conflict.