Philippine government forces kill 73 Moro rebels, lose 4 soldiers

GOING AFTER BIFF: Philippine Army troops arrive in Pikit, North Cotabato province, on Feb. 25, 2015

MANILA - Government forces have killed 73 Moro rebels, including one described as "foreign-looking" who may be among terror suspects sought by the United States, the military said on Monday.

Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the military was verifying the nationality of the foreign-looking rebel from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) whose body was recovered by government troops in Pusao village, Mamasapano town, in Maguindanao province, on Sunday.

Four BIFF rebels were also captured by pursuing Scout Rangers in the Maguindanao marshland, the military said.

Four rebels were killed by government troops in the latest fighting on Saturday, the 11th day of the military's all-out offensive against the BIFF.

The military, however, lost four soldiers, including a captain from the Scout Rangers, in the fighting in Pusao.

Foreign-looking fighter

Lt. Col. Willie Manalang, commander of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 8, described the foreign-looking fighter as 1.74 meters tall with a fair complexion.

"He does not look Asian. He could be one of the foreign terrorists who were coddled by the BIFF," Manalang said.

He said one of the slain rebels was believed to be a cousin of Ameril Umra Kato, founder of the BIFF.

"We found a cell phone among his belongings [and it] contained a text [message from] Kato where he was addressed as his cousin," Manalang said.

A military source said Malaysian military authorities had confirmed that foreign terrorists-four Indonesians and one Pakistani-were helping the BIFF in Maguindanao and that they had the terrorists' names.

The source said the foreign-looking fighter killed could be the Pakistani.

Wanted by US

Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala, a spokesman for the AFP, said the corpse's features bore "similarities" to one of the United States' "most wanted" Islamic militants.

Kakilala, however, refused to identify the suspect.

Catapang said earlier that four foreign terrorists were being coddled by Mohammad Ali Tambako, leader of the BIFF splinter group, Islamic Justice Movement (IJM).

The four soldiers killed in the fighting were from the 33rd Infantry Battalion's Alpha Company. Twenty-nine others were wounded in the six-hour fighting, said Col. Harold Cabunoc, chief of the AFP's public affairs office.

Cabunoc identified the slain officer as Capt. Grommel Auman, executive officer of the 6th Scout Ranger Company.

Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, spokesperson for the 6th Infantry Division, said one of the four BIFF rebels killed wore a Special Action Force (SAF) uniform, indicating that he was involved in the Jan. 25 clash with Moro rebels in Mamasapano that left 44 SAF commandos dead.

Surprised relatives

Relatives of the slain BIFF rebels said that they had thought all along that the men were members of the 105th Brigade of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace agreement with the government.

"We were surprised because what we knew was that they were regular MILF fighters and not BIFF members," said a cousin of two of the slain rebels.

"He was a farmer and at the same time an MILF member, but not a BIFF fighter," said a relative of one of the dead rebels.

The relatives went to the 6th ID headquarters at Camp Awang in Maguindanao to claim the bodies of the slain rebels.

Petinglay said the military treated the bodies with respect and turned them over to the relatives.

The military operation against the BIFF is centred on the Liguasan Marsh, where Basit Usman, the Filipino deputy of Malaysian-born terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as "Marwan," is believed to be hiding.

Marwan was killed in the Jan. 25 SAF operation in Mamasapano, but Usman managed to escape.

The BIFF, MILF and other rebels killed 44 SAF commandos as the operation backfired, triggering a wave of outrage that has shaken the administration of President Aquino.

The operation against the BIFF has forced about 45,000 civilians to flee their homes, according to local officials.

Guerrilla tactics

The BIFF is believed to have split into small groups to avoid getting wiped out in a direct confrontation with the military.

Abu Misri Mama, spokesman for the BIFF, explained that the smaller units enabled the group to effectively strike against the military.

"We can just crawl or wait near the roadside and then stage a surprise attack and then immediately withdraw," Mama said. "That's how guerrillas do it. We can't win [this war] in face-to-face battle."