At least 17 Muslim militants belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIIF) were killed as the military continued its offensive against the rebel group that is opposed to the peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
More than 1,500 troops are involved in the military operation against the BIFF in remote farming areas in the Muslim south, regional military spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
He said 17 BIFF members were killed in this week’s clashes, while two soldiers and one civilian were wounded.
The assault was launched on Monday, two days after the successful end of negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.
The BIFF is a small group of militants opposed to the peace effort, which has carried out many deadly attacks in recent years in a bid to derail the peace process.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, military spokesman, said though fighting stopped on Tuesday morning, the military offensive will continue in BIFF bailiwicks in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
Zagala said fighting may spread in other areas but at the moment, clashes are contained in Maguindanao.
“We have enough forces to be able to handle the estimated 300 BIFF forces, there’s enough troops there,” he added.
The BIFF was founded by renegade MILF Commander Ameril Umbra Kato over disagreements on the peace process.
Hermoso, spokesman of the Sixth Infantry Division, said the fighting in Barangay Bakat, Shariff Saidona Mustapaha was intense.
The first encounter took place on Sunday in the town of Sultan sa Barongis, followed by another firefight on Monday at the boundary of Pikit, Cotabato and Shariff Saidona, Maguinadano at the boundary of Pikit and Shariff.
At the House of Representatives, Deputy Speaker Pangalian Balindong of Lanao del Sur and Rep. Jim Hataman of Basilan urged the rebel group to give the peace deal a chance.
“They should let the negotiation run its course. They really don’t want to join the talks . . . they have opposed it from the very beginning. What the military is doing [right now]is law enforcement because these people are not covered by the ceasefire of the government,” Balindong told reporters at the Ugnayan sa Batasan News Forum.
Hataman said the people on the ground are tired of violence and wars.
“They [BIFF members] should give the peace deal a chance. As a political leader, I know that the common sentiment of the people on the ground is that they want this peace deal [with the MILF]because clashes have been there for so long. Everybody wants peace,” he added.
“There is no alternative to peace. We need peace to address underdevelopment and provide basic health services. We need peace to take off. Most of those who are fighting the government in the past are from the MILF ranks, so this pact will be significant. I don’t think BIFF can derail the peace process because these are pocket attacks that can definitely be neutralized, unlike in the case of the MILF in the past where their attacks in the past can shutdown roads in Davao, Cotabato, General Santos and Basilan,” Hataman said.
The MILF has been leading a rebellion since the 1970s aimed at winning independence or autonomy for the country’s Muslim minority in the southern region of Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland.
But as the group sought a peace accord with the government, the BIFF broke away with its leader, accusing the main Muslim rebel group of betraying Muslims’ quest for independence.
After 18 years of negotiations, the MILF and the government agreed on Saturday to the final annex of a planned peace accord aimed at creating a Muslim autonomous region. The accord is expected to be formally signed before the end of March.
President Aquino hopes to fully implement the peace plan before he steps down in the middle of 2016, but there are many legal, political and military obstacles that still need to be overcome.
One of those is the opposition of small splinter groups, such as the BIFF.
With report from AFP