MANILA, Philippines — Philippine troops killed two bomb couriers at an army checkpoint Wednesday before the suspected Muslim militants could detonate the explosives in a crowded area in the restive south, military officials said.
One of the two local militants opened fire at soldiers who flagged them down at a checkpoint Wednesday, sparking a brief gunbattle in M'lang town in North Cotabato province, said Brig. Cirilito Sobejana.
Troops have been alerted to brace for possible retaliation by militants.
Police defused a bomb made from a 60 mm mortar round that was carried by the two suspects along with a pistol and a cellphone, which was to be used to remotely detonate the explosive, Sobejana said.
The two belonged to Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, one of a number of small armed groups aligned with the Islamic State group that have turned to bombings to project they're still a force to reckon with amid battle setbacks, he said.
"They're running low on logistics and ammunition and cannot fight our troops face-to-face so they're resorting to these IED emplacements to cause a public alarm and send the message that they still exist," Sobejana said by telephone.
Last week, a bomb-laden van driven by a suspected militant went off in a powerful blast that killed 11 people, including a soldier, five militiamen and the driver, in a brazen attack near an army militia outpost in Lamitan city on southern Basilan island.
Militiamen, who had been alerted about possible bombings, stopped the van also at a checkpoint in Colonia village, where the bomb went off, military officials said.
The Islamic State group, through its media arm, claimed credit for the attack, saying the attacker was a Moroccan. It, however, inaccurately cited a much higher military death toll.
Government forces have been on alert in the south, scene of decades-long Muslim separatist unrest, after President Rodrigo Duterte signed a new autonomy agreement last week with the biggest Muslim rebel group.
The peace deal has been opposed by much smaller but violent extremist bands like the Abu Sayyaf and others, which have associated themselves with the IS.