Military halts large-scale offensive vs BIFF
The Armed Forces high command on Monday ordered its ground troops in Maguindanao to stop its all-out offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), claiming it has already achieved its objective of neutralizing the breakaway rebel group.
“Effective today [March 30], the all-out offensive against the BIFF would be ended. After the relentless operations against the BIFF, we have achieved our objectives including the neutralization of more than 50 percent of their ranks, the capture of bomb factories and the seizure of their enclaves or safe havens in different Maguindanao localities,” the military’s Chief of Staff. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said in a news conference at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City (Metro Manila).
Catapang, however, noted that remnants of the bandit group have splintered into small groups to evade pursuing soldiers and have sought refuge outside the conflict areas.
“The BIFF remnants have nowhere to hide,” he said.
“Formerly, they were in groups of 50 to 100, now they are just 20 to 30, so it’s part of our tactical move[s]because if we move also a hundred soldiers, easily the enemy can know or locate us or see us,” Catapang added.
We will still conduct offensive operation[s]but not big operations like brigade or battalion operations but [these]will be small-sized operations, Ranger-type,” he explained.
The military said the last reported clash between government forces and the BIFF happened on Sunday in Barangay Malangog in Datu Unsay town and Barangay Pamalian in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, both in Maguindanao, where four soldiers and 12 BIFF members including a certain Commander Bisaya were killed.
Commander Bisaya was among the BIFF fighters who engaged the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) in Mamasapano town last January 25 that resulted in the death of 44 police commandos.
Catapang ordered the all-out offensive on February 25 or exactly a month after the Mamasapano incident, a tragic ending to a mission meant to arrest suspected international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman.
Since the launch of the offensive, the AFP claimed, 151 BIFF bandits have been killed, 65 wounded and 12 arrested.
Ten soldiers and more than 30 others were wounded on the government side, the also military claimed.
Catapang said the military will continue to deploy soldiers to secure communities and deny the BIFF reentry into their former enclaves in Maguindanao.
“We will continue to hunt down the terrorists, like Basit Usman and his cohorts, who are now hiding outside the conflict areas,” he added.
As of Monday, military officials were coordinating with the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) for the safe return of residents to their homes.
Catapang said the number of displaced persons has dwindled from 120,000 to 90,000 who remain in various evacuation centers and houses of their relatives.
While pursuing the terrorists particularly high-valued targets, other units of the military will focus on rebuilding affected communities.
“We will help the LGUs [local government units], other government agencies, and the national government as a whole, in delivering public services to the people. We will support the implementation of development projects that are intended to spur the economic activities in these areas,” Catapang said.
The BIFF, which broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) supposedly in 2008, is mostly active in Maguindanao and other places in central Mindanao.
It was founded by Ameril Umbra Kato who wants full independence for Mindanao and disagrees with the MILF’s acceptance of autonomy offered by government peace negotiators.
Kato also claimed to have 5,000 fighters on his side but the military said that he only had 300 men. It was only in August 2011 that the MILF recognized the break and declared the BIFF a “lost command.”
The BIFF rejected the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, a preliminary peace agreement signed between the Philippine government and the MILF, and vowed to continue the fight for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao in southern Philippines.