ZAMBOANGA CITY: Islamic freedom fighters in the southern Philippines have vowed to crush a massive government offensive aimed at breaking the core of resistance of a breakaway faction of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front currently negotiating with Manila.
Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for the group called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, said the government offensive only brought miseries for thousands of civilians who fled the military assault in the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao.
“The only losers here are the civilians who are affected by the government offensive in North Cotabato and Maguindanao,” Mama told The Manila Times.
The 6th Infantry Division, which is on the forefront of the military 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 that would pave the way for an expanded Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, a spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division, citing intelligence reports, insisted that at least 40 rebels had been killed and that many more were wounded in the government offensive, an allegation strongly denied by Mama.
“Hermoso is a propagandist and liar, and I tell you that all he said was a lie. We have no casualties, although seven BIFF are slightly wounded in the fighting,” Mama said, adding they also destroyed at least three armoured personnel carriers and a battle tank in the clashes despite the superior military firepower—both on land and air.
Hermoso also said that the BIFF is harboring foreign terrorists and had been attacking military and civilian targets in Mindanao, but Mama just laughed off the military report. “I also heard the news and Hermoso is saying that we have foreign terrorists in our ranks, but the BIFF does not need any foreign fighters, we can fight on our own and defend ourselves and the Muslims in Mindanao. This is all propaganda of the military,” Mama said.
“The military would always 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. We stay away from the peace talks and whatever they do is their own business and we have our own goal and that is to pursue independence of the Bangsamoro homeland,” he added.
Hermoso said the BIFF has targeted civilians and were behind the spate of bombings, killings and extortion and that the military assault is part of a law enforcement operation. He said BIFF leaders are facing a string of criminal charges and so were their members. Mama denied Hermoso’s accusations and branded them as propaganda.
Mama also took a swipe at Gov. Mujiv Hataman, of the Muslim autonomous region and branded him as an “anti-BIFF.” “This Hataman never reach out for peace. He is an anti-BIFF,” he said without elaborating further.
Be part of peace process
Miriam Ferrer, head of the Philippine peace panel, said over the last 9 months, BIFF rebels repeatedly harassed troops and terrorized local communities. They 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 forcibly used it as a roadblock in Maguindanao.
“The ongoing military operations are geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process,” she said.
Ferrer said the government and the MILF have taken necessary steps to ensure the operations will not spill over to involve MILF rebels or cause unnecessary or prolonged hardship to civilians. She said the MILF is assisting in the operations by helping the government contain the movements of the BIFF.
“We call 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. Local government officials are ready to receive those who would like to silence their guns and participate in the different programs we will be undertaking as part of the implementation of the peace agreements,” she said.
“We know that BIFF members can also contact supporters or local ground commanders of the MILF who could facilitate their return to normal lives. These and other avenues are open for those among the BIFF who are ready to join us in our peace efforts,” 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.
“Given the need to cause as little disruption to the lives of civilians and to minimize their anxiety, we appeal that this police action be wrapped up immediately or that more proportionate military measures be adopted to undertake this police action to address civilian apprehensions about a police action that involves intense artillery shelling for several days,” it said.
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, if the peace talks fail many MILF members would surely join the BIFF to fight for self-determination and freedom,” he said.
Mama said even members of the Moro National Liberation Front may also join the BIFF. “That is possibility. The MNLF may also join us in this struggle,” he said.
The MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF, previously branded the five-province Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao as a failure. The region has been rocked by corruption scandals and remains as one of the poorest in the country.
The rebel group previously called on the Aquino government to amend the Constitution that would allow the creation of a Muslim sub-state in Mindanao. President Benigno Aquino’s allies in Congress have in the past proposed to amend the Constitution, saying, there is a need to change many provisions in the Charter that would benefit the country’s economy, among others.
Nur Misuari, leader of one of two MNLF factions, had previously met with Kato in his stronghold in Maguindanao’s Guindulungan town. And there were speculations that Misuari was trying to lure Kato to join the MNLF.
During the November 2011 meeting, Misuari said Kato’s group was well-armed and far larger than 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 Philippine authorities as behind the series of deadly attacks in Mindanao in 2008, and had been disowned by the MILF after they split with the rebel group with Kato forming his own called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
The military said Kato and Macapaar had led rebel forces in attacking civilian targets after peace negotiators failed to sign a Muslim homeland deal because the Supreme Court declared the accord unconstitutional. Because of the attacks, police and military authorities have launched an operation to capture the two leaders.
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, saying 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, but his condition remains unknown, although there were reports that a new commander – Sheik Mohidin Animbang – has taken over the command of the rebel group, whose members were mostly former fighters of the MILF and members of the rival MNLF.
The MILF, in a previous statement, said it is willing to help in the military operation against Kato and could 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 is also opposed to 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 the governor of autonomous region. But many former rebels were disgruntled with the accord, saying, the government failed to comply with some of its provisions and uplift 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.
In November 2001, on the eve of the elections in the Muslim autonomous region, 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.
Misuari escaped by boat to Malaysia, but was arrested there and deported to the Philippines. He was eventually freed in 2008 after Manila dropped all charges against him for lack of sufficient evidence. He was also ousted by Muslimin Sema, the MNLF Secretary-General, but Misuari maintained that he is the true leader of the former rebel group.
Last September, Misuari’s forces also assaulted several villages in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines and the fighting dragged on for three weeks. More than 400 people were killed and wounded in the fighting that forced over 120,000 villagers to flee their homes. Al Jacinto