ZAMBOANGA CITY: The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) vowed to repulse a massive assault by the military that has killed at least 40 of the group’s members after five days of clashes.
The Army has been pounding BIFF positions in North Cotabato and Maguindanao with artillery as it pressed on with its assault. The military has until Saturday to go after the BIFF, which is led by Ameril Umbrakato, a former commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF has allowed the military incursion into territory it controls.
But Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for the BIFF, said the group will defeat the government offensive which he said only brought misery to thousands of civilians.
“The only losers here are the civilians who are affected by the government offensive in North Cotabato and Maguindanao,” Mama told The Manila Times.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, a spokesman for the Sixth Infantry Division, which is spearheading the offensive, said as many as 40 rebels were killed since the assault began on January 27, a day after Philippine government peace negotiators and the MILF signed the last of the four annexes—Annex on Normalization—to the so-called Bangsamoro Framework Agreement Mama denied that many BIFF fighters were killed.
“Hermoso is a propagandist. I tell you that all he said was a lie. We have no casualties, although seven BIFF are slightly wounded,” Mama said.
He said at least three Army armored personnel carriers and a tank were destroyed in the clashes.
Mama laughed off what Hermoso said the BIFF harboring foreign terrorists and had been attacking military and civilian targets. “The BIFF does not need any foreign fighters, we can fight on our own and defend ourselves and the Muslims in Mindanao.
“The military would launch attacks against the BIFF every time peace talks between Manila and the MILF resumes and then they tell the Philippine media that we started it all.
The rebel spokesman also took a swipe at Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Mujiv Hataman, branding him as “anti-BIFF.” “This Hataman never reach out for peace. He is an anti-BIFF.”
Miriam Ferrer, head of the Philippine peace panel, said that over the last nine months, the BIFF repeatedly harassed troops and terrorized local communities.
Ferrer said the group planted roadside bombs, sniped at soldiers, took school teachers as hostages, and in one instance, even beheaded a civilian captive and recently commandeered a private vehicle and used it as a roadblock in Maguindanao.
She called on the members and the leaders of the BIFF “to put down their arms and be part of the process. We ask them to listen to the plea of their own brothers and sisters to give peace a chance.
“We know that BIFF members can also contact supporters or local ground commanders of the MILF who could facilitate their return to normal lives,” Ferrer added.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, which has been monitoring and assisting those displaced by the war, appealed to the government to “wrap up” the operation due to the growing number of affected civilians.
The human rights center has distributed food packs to the displaced families, but relief aid is not enough and also appealed for more help to be able to feed the refugees.
Mama said the BIFF—under Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato—remains a strong force despite government offensives the past years and warned that many MILF members may join them if the peace talks with the Aquino government fail. “That I can guarantee you,” he said.
Mama said even members of the Moro National Liberation Front may also join the BIFF.
The MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF, previously branded the five-province Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao as a failure.
The rebel group previously called on the Aquino government to amend the Constitution to allow the creation of a Muslim sub-state in Mindanao.
Nur Misuari, leader of one of two factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), had met with Kato in his stronghold in Guindulungan town in Maguindanao. There were speculations that Misuari was trying to persuade Kato to join the MNLF.
At the November 2011 meeting, Misuari said Kato’s group was well-armed and far larger than that of Murad Ebrahim, the MILF chieftain. He said the combined forces of the MNLF and Kato’s group is formidable.
Kato and another senior rebel leader, Abdulla Macapaar, were both accused by authorities as behind the series of deadly attacks in Mindanao in 2008. The two have been disowned by the MILF and Kato has since formed BIFF.
The military said Kato and Macapaar attacked civilian targets after peace negotiators failed to sign a Muslim homeland deal because the Supreme Court declared the accord unconstitutional.
Kato has repeatedly criticized Ebrahim for abandoning their struggle for independence and betraying the MILF when he agreed to a secret meeting called by President Aquino in Japan in August 2011.
Kato said Murad corrupted the rights of the Bangsamoro people, adding the MILF chieftain should have consulted his leaders before meeting with Aquino.
Kato suffered a stroke in 2011, and he is seldom seen in public. There were reports that a new commander—Sheik Mohidin Animbang—has taken over the BIFF, whose members were mostly former fighters of the MILF and the rival MNLF.
The MILF, in a previous statement, said it is willing to help the government go after Kato and provide forces to block all entry and exit points around his hideout.
The MILF forged an agreement with Manila in 2004 that paved the way for rebel forces—through the ad hoc joint action group—to help government hunt down terrorists and criminal elements in areas where the rebel group is actively operating.
Like Kato, Misuari opposes the government peace talks with the MILF, saying, Manila should first abide by the peace agreement it signed with the MNLF in September 1996, ending more than 20 years of bloody fighting in the southern Philippines.
After the peace agreement was signed, Misuari became ARMM governor. But many former rebels were unhappy with the accord, saying the government failed to comply with some of its provisions and improve their standards of living.
They accused the government of failing to develop the war-torn areas in the south, which remain in mired in poverty, heavily militarized and dependent financially on Manila.
On the eve of the ARMM elections in November 2001, Misuari accused the government of reneging on the peace agreement, and his followers launched a new rebellion in Sulu and Zamboanga City, where more than 100 people were killed.