Philippine military hunts most-wanted bombmaker sheltered by militants loyal to ISIS

In this photo taken on Feb 28, 2015, government forces of the 6th Infantry Division fire a105 Howitzer canon in Maguindanao, Southern Philippines. The Philippine military is trying to capture a bombmaker it believes is being "coddled" by Filipin
In this photo taken on Feb 28, 2015, government forces of the 6th Infantry Division fire a105 Howitzer canon in Maguindanao, Southern Philippines. The Philippine military is trying to capture a bombmaker it believes is being "coddled" by Filipino militants who have pledged loyalty to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). -- PHOTO: AFP 

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippine military is trying to capture a bombmaker it believes is being "coddled" by Filipino militants who have pledged loyalty to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), authorities said Sunday.

The capture of Abdel Basit Usman is one of the objectives of a major army offensive on the southern island of Mindanao, said local military commander Major General Edmundo Pangilinan.

The US government has Usman on its most-wanted list with a US$1 million (S$1.36 million) bounty on his head. Washington and Manila say he has links to Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, two groups of Southeast Asian militants.

Pangilinan said the military believes Usman is being sheltered by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which has vowed support to ISIS.

"Basit Usman is still believed to be in the area. We believe the BIFF, this armed, lawless group, are the ones coddling and protecting him. We are still pursuing him," he told AFP.

"Field reports indicated that three (Filipino Muslim) lieutenants of Basit Usman were killed in the assault," a military statement said.

"More troops were sent in to scour the hiding places of Usman," it added. Military officials declined to specify how many soldiers were involved.

More than 10,000 residents have fled since the fighting began last week between the army and the BIFF in the province of Maguindanao on Mindanao, a government spokesman said, adding that Manila was providing aid to them.

Pangilinan said the military was also confirming reports of four Indonesians and an Arab who may be with Usman and the BIFF.

"Airstrikes and artillery fire were delivered (on Saturday) after information of the location of the targets were identified," a military statement said, without specifying if anyone was hit.

Usman was one of the targets of a botched police commando operation in the same area on January 25.

Forty-four commandoes were killed in the raid, triggering a wave of outrage which has shaken the administration of President Benigno Aquino.

Usman was not captured. But initial DNA tests from another body indicated the raid may have succeeded in killing another target, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir.

The FBI, which has offered a US$5 million reward for Zulkifli, alias Marwan, describes him as a leading member of the Jemaah Islamiyah, which staged the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people and numerous other attacks.

The BIFF is a group of a few hundred gunmen. It broke away from the much larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in peace talks with the government.

The BIFF rejects the peace process and seeks an independent Islamic state in the south of the largely Catholic nation.