SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao: More than 1,000 families from the beleaguered towns of Datu Salibo, Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Datu Shariff Saydona have sought shelter in neighboring villages as the military tracks down lawless elements, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rebels, who harassed two Army detachments in the area on New Year’s Eve.
Noralyn Udasan Nul, a registered nurse and a relief personnel of the Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (HEART-ARMM), told The Manila Times that the affected families were from Barangay Madia in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Barangay Sambolawan in Datu Salibo and Barangay Pagatin in Datu Shariff Saydona.
Nul said the displaced families have sought shelter in the houses of their relatives in nearby villages.
ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman on Monday ordered an emergency assessment of the situation in the three towns and a relief operation in coordination with the local government units (LGUs) of the three affected towns.
Prior to the attack, some villagers had also told HEART-ARMM volunteers that they were advised by the rebels to leave their houses and move to safer ground.
Although tensions in the affected towns have slowly eased as of Tuesday, most of the residents refused to return home for fear of further armed clashes involving the military and the BIFF anytime.
“The evacuees want assurance for their safety and they fear becoming another collateral damage in this war,” Nul said.
There were reports that the BIFF rebels who harassed the Army detachments suffered five fatalities.
At this writing, however, there was no confirmation of the reports either from the LGUs concerned or from the military.
The hostilities began when the BIFF attacked two military detachments on New Year’s Eve until Sunday afternoon that saw several houses hit by mortar fire.
The terrorists also raided military posts in Midsayap and Pigcawayan towns in North Cotabato.
About 30 BIFF rebels, led by Commander Tato Pauya and Commander Tong, engaged troops from the 34th Infantry Battalion (IB) in a firefight until about 1 a.m. on New Year’s Eve.
The Army fired artilleries at rebel positions while Air Force planes provided cover for troops battling the BIFF on the ground.
The attack on the military base in Barangay Nabalawag, Midsayap wounded Norcel Bulay-Bulay, wife of an Army soldier.
On Monday, troops were deployed to hunt down the rebels, as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Midsayap, North Cotabato each retained a red alert status.
Supt. Bernard Tayong, Midsayap town police chief, said soldiers from the 34th IB and Midsayap PNP will continue to enforce checkpoints in areas identified to be conflict-affected and crime-prone, especially in the boundaries of Midsayap and municipality of Datu Piang.