STALLED. Hundreds of motorists are held at the Delta Bridge separating Cotabato City and the town of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao Saturday morning (Jan. 23, 2020) following an encounter between members of a heavily-armed lawless group and government forces. Military tanks (inset) are also deployed along the highway in Sultan Kudarat town to prevent a spillover of the incident to Cotabato City. (Photo courtesy of Anne Acosta/Mindanao Expose)

COTABATO CITY - More bodies of suspects belonging to a local armed group have been found during clearing operations following a five-hour encounter with the police in the Maguindanao town of Sultan Kudarat on Saturday.

Maj. Ismael Madin, chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Maguindanao, said three of the 12 suspects were identified as Datu Abdullah Kato Talusan, Pendatun Kato Talusan, and Datu Bembi Talusan.

“All were killed during the firefight,” Madin said, adding that a police officer, Staff Sgt. Elenel Pido was also killed during the encounter that started at around 3 a.m.

Injured during the clash were Capt. Ronillo R. Daligdig Jr., Corporals John Rey Aquino, and Gyvard Bando, and  Patrolman Cayl Jun Gonzales of the police’s 4th Special Action Battalion.

Mandi said members of the lawless Talusan group are wanted for a string of murder, illegal drug trading, carnapping, robbery, and extortion cases in the municipality and nearby Cotabato City.

“The group is also linked to the series of recent highway shooting incidents in Sultan Kudarat that included police and military personnel,” Madin said. “They were heavily armed when they engaged our troopers."

Retrieved from the armed group were six M16 rifles, two .45-caliber pistols, a homemade .50-caliber Barret sniper rifle, an M14 rifle, a FAL rifle, and a .22 caliber rifle.

A team of Maguindanao policemen was about to implement search and arrest warrants against the suspects but were met with a hail of bullets as they approached the group's safe house in Barangay Limbo.

More forces from the Philippine Marines and the Cotabato City police later arrived in the area to secure the fleeing civilians. (PNA)