TWENTY-three more members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were killed in fresh clashes with government forces bringing to 97 the number of bandits slain since the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched an all-out offensive against the rebel group in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office, said the 23 BIFF members were killed during a series of encounters along the boundary of Datu Salibo and Datu Piang towns on Tuesday afternoon.
Although the military has no actual body count, Cabunoc maintained that the figure has been validated.
The clashes continued until Wednesday, he said.
However, two Marines were killed and two others injured when soldiers clashed with the Justice for Islamic Movement (JIM), a breakaway group of the BIFF, in Barangay Pusao in the municipality of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Cabunoc said.
The JIM, led by Mohhamad Ali Tambako, was said to be protecting Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman and five international terrorists.
Members of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Battalion are supporting the troops in the skirmishes in the areas of Datu Salibu and Datu Piang.
Meanwhile, the AFP denied claims of some villagers in Elian, Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao that artillery fires destroyed houses there.
According to Cabunoc, a team of soldiers who were sent to verify the claim reported that the adjacent house where the alleged artillery fire occurred remains intact, “a sign that the damage could not have been caused by a 105mm high explosive blast.”
The military believed that the report may have been used as bait by the BIFF because when the soldiers arrived in the area, they were met with mortar fire.
The AFP has earlier declared civilian communities as “No Fire Area” in accordance with military doctrines on indirect fire support. A “No Fire Area” is a zone where high explosive bombs from mortars, artilleries, and planes are not allowed to be used.
Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division ordered a Civil Military Operations Battalion to assess the reported damage and to extend assistance in repairing houses.
“We will continue to adhere to the Rules of Engagement and the provisions of the International Humanitarian Law to ensure that civilians are protected during the conduct of law enforcement operations,” Cabunoc said.