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Clashes continue in southern Philippines
Publication Date : 31-01-2014
At least 40 fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters dead; 10,000 flee
Military operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao province have been extended until Saturday amid reports that they were being helped in their escape to the marshy areas by relatives in the bigger Moro rebel groups.
As of Thursday, 40 BIFF members and one soldier had been killed since fighting and heavy artillery barrage began four days ago, Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said. Some 10,000 people have fled their homes for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.
Twelve rebels and 13 soldiers have been wounded, Hermoso said. But Abu Misry Mama, BIFF spokesman, said only seven rebels had been wounded. Mama explained that the government forces were having a hard time running after the rebels who, he said, were into guerrilla warfare.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the military launched the assault to protect villages after BIFF fighters staged attacks in southern Maguindanao. Troops were aiming “to seriously degrade their abilities to again act as spoilers”, he told reporters.
The BIFF has opposed peace talks between the government and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which were concluded over the weekend in Malaysia.
The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008 and has vowed to continue the uprising because the Malaysian-brokered talks would not lead to a separate Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao.
2 rebel camps fall
On Tuesday, Hermoso said the security forces overran BIFF strongholds at Barangay (village) Bakat in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town and at Barangay Ganta in Datu Piang town, both in Maguindanao.
The camp in Bakat yielded a makeshift factory of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including live mortar rounds, Hermoso said.
“These are the IEDs that they used for all the bombings they did in Central Mindanao,” he told the Inquirer on the phone.
“They can take our camps but if they don’t capture us, they cannot stop our jihad,” Mama told Agence France-Presse on the phone, referring to their term for holy war.
“We attack and then we disappear. Also … our families in our communities support us,” he added.
The offensive, which was supposed to end on Wednesday, will be extended up to Saturday following the approval of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, the ceasefire mechanism between the government and the MILF.
“We want to isolate the lawless group within these 72 hours,” Hermoso said.
Troops were pursuing the retreating rebels, who have split into smaller groups, in the marshy areas of Datu Piang and Shariff Saydona, he said.
“The hardliners of the BIFF are just small, but their relatives in the MILF and MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) are helping them. While these are not sanctioned by the entire organisations, we have asked the MILF and the MNLF to sanitise their ranks,” Hermoso said.
Some 10,000 residents have fled their homes in Rajah Buayan, Sultan sa Barongis, Datu Piang and Shariff Saydona Mustapha towns, all in Maguindanao, said Laisa Masuhud-Alamia, executive secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
In a statement, government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the “ongoing military operations are geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process.”
“The government and the MILF have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the operations will not spill over to involve MILF combatants or cause unnecessary or prolonged hardship to civilians. The MILF is assisting in the operations by helping the government contain the movements of the BIFF,” Ferrer said.
The chair of the House committee on defence on Thursday urged the MILF to help the government in going after the BIFF and other troublemakers in Mindanao.
“If the MILF will do this, it will seem like to us, indeed it is serious in restoring peace in Mindanao,” said Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Aquino said the new peace deal would bring the government and the 11,000-strong MILF together to pursue outlaws who have long thrived in the conflict.
In Manila, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs William Hague on Thursday called on Filipinos and all groups in Mindanao to rally behind the imminent peace deal, saying this was the “quickest” way to end the renewed fighting in the region.
Speaking to reporters after holding a brief joint press
conference with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Hague noted that the United Kingdom had undergone a “long and difficult but ultimately successful peace process” in Northern Ireland and hoped that the “tremendous change for the positive” that came to the latter would also eventually happen to Filipinos.
“I think the best thing now is for everyone to rally behind the agreement that has been made and for all groups in that region to support the agreement negotiated, and that is the quickest way to bring to an end any fighting that remains,” he said.—With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Karlos Manlupig, Aquiles Z. Zonio, Charlie S. Señase, Inquirer Mindanao; Christine O. Avendaño and Cynthia D. Balana in Manila; and agencies