HUNDREDS of armed men attacked government troops in a North Cotabato village on Wednesday in a hit-and-run assault that may have been intended to help Islamist militants who were engaged in a nearby urban war, authorities said.
Five civilians used as human shields were missing, and soldiers were pursuing the assailants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who had quickly retreated, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila.
Padilla said the gunmen attacked a military outpost at daybreak in Pigkawayan, a farming town about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Marawi City where fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) group have been battling troops for a month.
The area around Pigkawayan is made up of marshlands, mountains and farmlands.
The attack could be a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on the terrorists in Marawi, local police commander Chief Insp. Realan Mamon said in a radio interview.
From a report released by the Philippine National Police, the attack started around 5:45 a.m. at Malagakit village in Pigkawayan.
Policemen, as well as troops deployed by the Philippine Army’s 34th Infantry Battalion, responded to the scene, authorities said.
Authorities initially reported that the gunmen had occupied a school before students arrived. The bandits supposedly retreated from a firefight with the army troops, forcing them to go straight to the school compound.
The gunmen first attacked the lightly defended military outpost, then exchanged fire with troops, Padilla said.
“It’s already resolved. The enemy has withdrawn… they failed,” he said, adding that troops were in pursuit of the militants.
But in a news briefing in Camp Aguinaldo, Col. Edgard Arevalo, public affairs chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said “skirmishes there are still ongoing because they (BIFF men) withdrew in the school.”
Citing reports from Lt. Gen. Arnel de la Vega, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, Arevalo said the BIFF, accompanied by a private armed group, was still inside the school compound.
“When we say contained, we are able to [prevent]the possibility [of the assailants fleeing]out from [the school]or [getting reinforcements], because our goal here is to prevent the situation from escalating,” Arevalo explained.
200 to 300 gunmen
Padilla said there were no confirmed casualties but the military had yet to locate the five people initially used as human shields.
Pigkawayan town mayor Eliseo Garsesa said about 200 gunmen were involved, while a police report said there were about 300.
The BIFF is one of a number of armed groups in Mindanao that analysts say have pledged allegiance to IS.
Padilla said the BIFF, a small insurgent group believed to have just a few hundred fighters, had seemingly sought to capitalize on the military being focused on the Marawi war.
“By and large they are just taking advantage… of the situation that we have a very slightly defended outpost and that they think our forces are elsewhere in the province,” he said.
Muslim rebels have been fighting for more than four decades for an independent or autonomous region in the south of the mainly Catholic nation, with the conflict claiming more than 120,000 lives.
The major rebel organizations have signed, or are pursuing, peace deals with the government, but small hardline groups such as the BIFF have vowed to continue fighting.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern region of Mindanao on May 23 immediately after fighters flying the IS flag rampaged through Marawi.
Their assault on Marawi ignited an unprecedented urban war that has claimed hundreds of lives and which Duterte has warned is part of an IS campaign to establish a base in Mindanao.
The fighting has left Marawi, the most important Muslim city in the Philippines, largely in ruins.
The militants involved in the Marawi fighting are mostly from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf organizations, which have united with the BIFF under the IS umbrella, according to the government.
The military has said foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, have also joined the Marawi conflict.
IS has ambitions of setting up a caliphate in Southeast Asia – home to largely Muslim nations like Indonesia and Malaysia – as the group loses territory in Iraq and Syria.
Garsesa, the town mayor, said local authorities had received text messages over the past several days about an attack somewhere in the area.
The BIFF was blamed for attacking at least nine Mindanao towns in 2008, with the assaults claiming about 400 lives and forcing 600,000 people to flee their homes.