‘Situation back to normal’
EIGHT people, including six terrorists, were killed following Wednesday’s attack by the Islamic State (IS)-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in North Cotabato, but the situation was “back to normal,” the military said.
The two others killed were civilian Towan Dading Esmael, 61, and Abraham Sakilan Cutay, 33, who was training to be part of the civilian militia.
Ten people were injured: eight BIFF men and two militiamen.
Most of the more than 1,300 residents of Pigkawayan town evacuated by the military following the BIFF raid have returned to their homes, said Capt. Nap Alcarioto, spokesman of the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade.
The BIFF bandits on Wednesday morning stormed a public school after retreating from an early-morning firefight with the Army’s 34th Infantry Battalion. This was despite a martial law declaration over Mindanao amid the military offensive against the Maute group that attacked Marawi City last month.
“Normal situation [in Pigkawayan]is back since our civilians have already returned but not all of them. The situation in the highway is back to normal, Pigkawayan’s entrance too,” Alcarioto said in an interview.
Still, 30 members of the BIFF remained inside the school compound, and soldiers were pursuing others who escaped, he said. Authorities are on alert for possible attacks by the BIFF against law enforcers and civilians.
“[We are also conducting] clearing operations in the vicinity of Pigkawayan. That’s what the troops are currently doing,” said Capt. Arvin Encinas of the 6th Infantry Division.
Encinas said government troops went inside the school compound at around 6 p.m. on Wednesday, forcing BIFF members to leave behind civilians they had used as “human shields.”
At least two of the escaping BIFF bandits were arrested by the Joint Task Force Central at a checkpoint in Maguindanao province.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. clarified that the school was not surrounded by the BIFF, but the terrorists managed to dig a tunnel to escape.
Classes in the school were temporarily suspended.
In a report, the AFP Western Mindanao Command identified the arrested bandits as Jahren Mantukay, 23 and Bardurin Limbay, 28, said to be members of the BIFF Special Operations Group under a certain “Palos.”
The firefight between the military and the BIFF men lasted for about 11 hours, ending at 5 p.m. on Wednesday.
A total of 1,370 evacuees from the villages of Malagakit, Simsiman, Banucagon and Central Tanasan were brought to the Pigkawayan National High School.
Malacañang on Thursday took pains in saying that the Pigkawayan attack was not a spillover of the Marawi conflict.
“It’s not connected so we cannot say it is a spillover. It is an opportunistic action coming from the BIFF group,” Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a news conference.
Abella issued the statement after President Rodrigo Duterte cautioned against a spillover of the Marawi siege into other parts of the country, which he emphasized was a sufficient reason to impose martial law in Mindanao.
But the Palace official clarified Duterte was “just giving heads up that we need to be aware of circumstances in our environment.”
with EMPSEY REYES