Suspected members of the group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), stormed a town in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Saturday, according to media reports, forcing many residents to evacuate as the military set up road blockades and advanced towards the area.
As many as 200 BIFF fighters reportedly entered Datu Paglas, a town in the province of Maguindanao in Mindanao, early on Saturday, the state television PTV said. Other reports placed the number of fighters between 80 to 100.
Videos posted on social media showed government troops hunkered on a sideroad as the sound of gunfire were heard. But there were no immediate reports of casualties.
According to the state-owned Philippine News Agency (PNA), a cargo truck was used by the gunmen to block the national highway leading to the town public market.
Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Baldomar, a military spokesman, was quoted by PNA as saying that the fighters occupied the town’s public market and established a “defensive position” there.
The rebels also prevented vendors and civilians from leaving.
Another report quoted Baldomar as saying the fighters only wanted to get food from the market, but their presence scared off residents, who then reported them to authorities.
Video footage posted by MAX FM, a radio station in the neighbouring city of Tacurong, showed government troops blocking a highway leading to Datu Paglas.
Another video clip showed thick black smoke rising from the town, as some residents were seen fleeing from the area.
Hundreds of motorists and passengers were also reportedly stranded due to the closure of a major road that passes through the town. As of 0300 GMT, the road remained closed to civilian traffic.
Esmael Mangudadatu, a Congress member and former governor of Maguindanao, told the radio station that the main concern now is to secure the safety of civilians. Many of the residents of the town are preparing for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The BIFF is opposed to the peace agreement in southern Philippines between the main Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the central government, leading to their breakaway.
According to the military, some of the BIFF fighters have reportedly fought alongside the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf in the 2017 siege of Marawi, which lasted for five months.
Some members of the BIFF have also reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).