44 killed in clashes in southern Philippines

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MANILA -  A total of 44 militants have been killed in continuing clashes between government troops and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an army spokesman said on Sunday. 
Lt. Col. Gerry Besana told reporters that the military offensive that started on Thursday continues, and so far 44 militants have been killed and 26 were wounded. 

Besana said that the number of casualties was based on "intelligence information," saying troops did not recover bodies of the dead fighters. 
The military reported on Friday that heavy fighting broke out around 6 a.m. local time on Thursday between government troops and some 50 militants in the southern Philippines in Lower Salbu, a village in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town in Maguindanao province that resulted in the initial deaths of 12 BIFF militants. 
Besana said the fighting spread to nearby villages in Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay. The number of the BIFF swelled to about 100, prompting the troops to call for reinforcements. 
The troops used artillery and military aircraft to pound the BIIF position. 
"Many died in the ground operations on the first day, many also died on the second day during artillery and close air support (operations)," Besana said. 

Besana said 34 of the 44 militants who were reported killed have been identified by the relatives. 
The BIFF is composed of around 300 men based on their latest estimate. The military classifies the group as a terrorist organization, along with the Abu Sayyaf and the Abu Sayyaf Group. 
Besana said the military believes that at lest 70 BIFF have so far been killed and injured in past clashes. "We are still pursuing about 200 more," he said. 

The latest fighting has displaced about 500 families, based on the count of local government officials. The military is helping in attending to the needs of the displaced population, said Besana. 
BIFF members are mostly disgruntled former members of the larger insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which signed peace accord with the government. 
The BIFF is among the several groups in Mindanao that pledged allegiance with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria a few years ago. 


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