MORE than a hundred members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have been cornered by government forces following clashes in central Mindanao that left at least 41 people dead and dozens wounded.
The military was given by the joint action group of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) until Saturday to complete its mission to hunt down the BIFF, whose members broke into smaller groups to better elude government troops, a military official said on Thursday.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the BIFF members had fled to Reina Regente mountain at the boundary of Maguindanao and Pikit, North Cotabato province.
“They (BIFF) broke into smaller groups after a running gunbattle yesterday (Wednesday) and the army and police have overrun the villages of Bakat and Ganta at Sharif Saydona Mustapha in Maguindao,” Hermoso said.
Sharif Saydona Mustapha is a known BIFF stronghold. The group’s headquarters, training camp and center for manufacturing improvised explosive devices are all located in the town.
“There were running gunbattles because they splintered into smaller groups. There are still some sporadic fighting in [Brgy.] Bakat and they are still there,” Hermoso said.
The army official said one government soldier was killed while 13 others were wounded since clashes broke out on Monday.
Hermoso said the three Army battalions are more than enough to go after the BIFF.
He added that the Adhoc-Joint Action Group (AHJAG) has extended for 72 hours the military and police’s operation against the BIFF, which had broken from the MILF.
“We have requested for an extension and the AHJAG granted our request and this will last until Saturday if they (BIFF) surrender. If not, we will continue, but (that) depends on the situation on the ground,” Hermoso said.
He said the MNLF and MILF pledged to steer clear of the fighting and not take sides.
“We made close coordination with them and they have promised that their groups will not support or make alliance… but some of their members have relatives with the BIFF,” Hermoso said.
Former MILF commander Ameril Umbrakato formed the BIFF in 2012, and the group has since been involved in terrorist acts, including the sacking of villages and taking of hostages.
Malacañang on Thursday justified the offensive against the BIFF as part of the military’s duty to preserve peace in Mindanao.
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said they want the hostilities to end soon through heightened cooperation between government troops and MILF fighters.
“We need to understand the situation. We also need to understand that the primary responsibility of our Armed Forces and the police is to ensure the safety of our people,” Coloma said.
“If there are sectors who would claim that the operations encroach their territory, the important question is whether the forces of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the police follow the accepted rules of engagement. Do they follow the important consideration of protection of human rights and against indiscriminate use of force?” he said.
Coloma was reacting to reports that MNLF forces in central Mindanao complained that government troops had entered their turf.
But Coloma said government troops have orders to strictly abide by the rules of engagement and protect civilians.
Coloma refuted the MNLF’s claim that they were left out in the negotiations.
“There was no move that intends to disadvantage or discriminate any particular sector because our objective is to have a peace pact. We do not want violence. But we need to defend the safety of the people with the end in view of having lasting peace,” he pointed out.
Government peace panel chairman Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the military operations “are geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process.”
“Over the last nine months, the [BIFF] repeatedly harassed our soldiers and terrorized local communities. They planted roadside bombs, sniped at our soldiers, took school teachers as hostages, and in one instance, even beheaded a civilian captive. A few days ago, in the midst of the fighting, they commandeered a private vehicle and forcibly used it as a roadblock,” she noted.
“Government and the MILF have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the operations will not spill over to involve MILF combatants or cause unnecessary or prolonged hardship to civilians,” she said.
Ferrer appealed the the BIFF to “put down their arms and be part of the process.”
As the fighting entered its third day, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) vowed to support peace efforts in Mindanao.
In a statement, the PCEC congratulated the members of the government and the Muslim peace panels who demonstrated transparency, determination, and trustworthiness as they struggled with many difficult issues around the negotiating table.
“We pray that the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by the Transition Commission would reflect the just and peaceful aspirations of all the Moro people, all the various tribes among the Indigenous Peoples, as well as the Migrants in Mindanao. We also pray that this BBL would pass the careful, responsible examination and deliberation in the House of Representatives using the lenses of justice, righteousness, and peace for all,” the statement said.