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Fighting erupts in southern Philippines
Publication Date : 28-01-2014
Fighting erupted between Army soldiers and Moro breakaway rebels in Maguindanao province on Monday, two days after the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) successfully ended negotiations to end a decades-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people.
At least three members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were killed in a clash with government forces in Sultan sa Barongis town in Maguindanao around 2:30pm, Brig. Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan, chief of the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade, told the Inquirer.
“Our operations against them are well coordinated with our counterparts in the MILF,” Pangilinan said. “Our main objective here is to prevent any group to sabotage the smooth outcome of our peace talks.”
According to the BIFF leader, Abu Misry Mama, only two rebels were wounded. The BIFF, which split from the MILF in 2008, opposes the peace talks between the mainstream Moro rebel group and the Aquino administration.
In Kuala Lumpur, government and MILF representatives signed on Saturday the last of four annexes to the Bangsamoro framework agreement that would pave the way for a comprehensive peace deal.
“The military has been trying to bend its tolerance, but the bandits continue its lawlessness. We cannot allow this to happen,” Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, told reporters in a news briefing on Monday.
Shelling in Pikit
Soldiers of the 602nd Infantry Brigade fired more than 20 rounds of 105 mm howitzers toward Barangay (village) Paidu Pulangi in Pikit town in North Cotabato to prevent the BIFF rebels from crossing into the province.
Hundreds of residents in Barangays Paidu Pulangi, Kabasalan and nearby villages fled to the town centre to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
More soldiers from the 7th Infantry Battalion based in Pikit were moved to the North Cotabato-Maguindanao border as a blocking force, while the Army’s 2nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade was deployed to the towns of Datu Piang, Shariff Saydona and Sultan sa Barongis in Maguindanao.
Hermoso said another group of rebels was massing fighters at the borders of Pikit, North Cotabato, and the towns of Saydona Mustapha, Datu Piang and Sultan sa Barongis in Maguindanao on Sunday.
“We are containing the BIFF in one area in the marshland so they cannot sow terror in other areas,” he said.
Hermoso told Agence France-Presse that the attacks were launched in a bid to arrest about 25 leaders of the BIFF, a small group of between 250 and 400 militants.
But BIFF leader Mama said his followers ambushed the soldiers when they entered BIFF territory in Sultan sa Barongis.
He denied an earlier statement by Hermoso that the rebels planted a roadside bomb that exploded as a government truck was passing by.
“We are ensuring the people that the BIFF does not use land mines. Our heavy firepower comes only from rocket-propelled grenades and M-79 grenade launchers,” Mama said.
At dawn on Monday, the military launched a mortar attack in Datu Piang town. “The shelling was aimed to soften rebel positions so that ground forces can enter the area,” Hermoso said.
According to Mama, the soldiers fired on rebel positions in the village of Ganta in Datu Piang around 4am. “We have a camp in the area, but we fear innocent civilians might be hit by their mortars,” he said.
Hermoso said the government forces lifted the artillery barrage at 5am, adding that it was directed toward an area far from civilian communities.
He explained that the assault was a law enforcement operation aimed to deliver a warrant of arrest against suspected rebel leaders.
“The operation is led by the Philippine National Police while the military is providing additional support,” he said.
Hermoso said the attack was in no way connected to the signing of the normalization deal between the government and the MILF in Malaysia.
Von Al-Haq, spokesman for the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), said the joint police and military operations had been coordinated with the MILF through the existing ceasefire mechanisms.
“The BIAF has repositioned its troops to give way to the operation and to avoid misencounters,” Al-Haq said.
He stressed that the ongoing operations were proof that the ceasefire and coordination mechanisms between the government and the MILF are working.
“The MILF are part of the law enforcement operations. They are just securing their communities so those [BIFF fighters] cannot enter. They are also angry with the BIFF,” Hermoso told the French news agency.
The MILF has been leading a rebellion in Mindanao since the 1970s, aimed at winning independence or autonomy for the Moro people in their ancestral homeland. About 150,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict.
After 18 years of negotiations, the MILF agreed on Saturday on the final part of a peace accord that would give Muslims a large degree of autonomy in the south, including control of much of the region’s natural resources.
The peace accord is expected to be signed within weeks and President Aquino is aiming for it to be fully implemented before he steps down in mid-2016.
But it must still clear other hurdles, including congressional approval and a regional plebiscite, as well as the opposition of smaller rebel groups such as the BIFF.
The BIFF broke away from the MILF gradually after its leader, Saudi-trained cleric Ameril Umra Kato, accused the main Moro group of betraying the region’s quest for independence.
Kato led attacks against mostly Christian towns in Mindanao in 2008, leading to the deaths of more than 400 people and displacing 750,000 others.—With reports from Karlos Manlupig, Jeoffrey Maitem, Edwin O. Fernandez and Charlie C. Señase, Inquirer Mindanao; and agencies