Bent on stopping the reign of terrorism in Mindanao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Thursday vowed to decimate all rebel and terror groups to bring normalcy to the South.
Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala, newly-installed AFP spokesperson, said government forces in particular aim to neutralize the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) through military operations in the so-called SPMS Box. SPMS refers to Salvu, Pagatin, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao.
The town of Mamasapano was the site of a deadly encounter between police commandos and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and BIFF fighters in January.
The military described the SPMS Box as “no man’s land.”
“We would like to do this as fast as we can so that we can bring normalcy to the affected communities. The AFP has extended its clearing operations for another three days and will conduct detailed assessment for our future action,” Kakilala said in a news briefing.
He added that once the military has flushed out the armed bandits and terrorists from these areas, it will facilitate the safe return of the civilians to their homes.
Kakilala explained that the military aims to reduce the capability of lawless groups to sow terror.
But even as it pressed its anti-terror operations in the South, the military called on armed groups to “embrace lasting peace or continue to be on the run.”
Kakilala said the MILF supported the AFP’s operations. MILF members have voluntarily relocated to areas away from the battle sites.
The continuing military operations have displaced 25,000 civilians.
According to the official, AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. met with Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu to discuss ways on how to deliver humanitarian assistance to the affected families.
He said civil-military Operations are in place to complement the military operations.
The military said it is closely coordinating with the local government of Pagalungan for the return of the evacuees. Officials are also collaborating with relief organizations for delivery of humanitarian assistance to the affected communities.
“We have also deployed the Task Force Kalinga, a unit that is composed of military doctors that will be augmented by civilian volunteers, in order to provide medical services to the evacuees who fled ongoing law enforcement actions against the BIFF in Maguindanao,” Kakilala said.
Catapang recently ordered an all-out offensive against armed groups that military officials said was a reaction to attacks by the BIFF led by Kagi Karialan on various communities in Pikit, North Cotabato, in mid-February.
On Wednesday, Kakilala’s predecessor, Col. Restituto Padilla Jr., said at least 70 armed members of the BIFF have formed a new faction that joined the Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
Called the Justice Islamic Movement (JIM), the group is reportedly led by Mohammad Tambako, who was earlier tagged by the military as the coddler of Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman.
Usman was one of the targets of the Special Action Force (SAF) operation in Mamasapano, Maguinadanao, that led to the killing of 44 police commandos by the BIFF and the MILF on January 25.
But Emmanuel Bautista, executive secretary of the Cabinet cluster on security, justice and peace, said international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may take advantage of the continued armed conflicts in Mindanao and seek refuge in the country.
Bautista explained that in case the ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, its members from Malaysia and Indonesia may go to areas where there are ongoing armed conflicts, like in Mindanao.
“When the ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, where will those members from Malaysia and Indonesia go? Where else will they seek sanctuary but in a place with continuing conflicts?” he said in a forum on implications of the Mamasapano massacre on the peace process.
Bautista warned that there could be a spillover of violence from followers of the ISIS if the Mindanao armed conflicts escalated.
“We need to address this because of the potential threat from the outside,” he said.
Although there was no confirmation on the ISIS’ direct recruitment in the country, Bautista mentioned reports that the group has a half-Filipino member.
He said the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is being pushed by the government, would help solve the internal conflicts in Mindanao.
“We have been in conflict for the last 40 years, we can’t go on fighting in the next 40 years,” Bautista added.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, a forum resource person, said the proposed P75-billion fund for the Bangsamoro government is not actually a “big deal” if it is to be reckoned from the current fund of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
He added that the budget is not that big since all government agencies’ budgets usually go up every year.
“So, P75 billion is not a radical departure from P62 billion. If you just see P75 billion, then that’s a lot of money. But in this case, it’s just a matter of progression,” Angara said.