THE entire province of Maguindanao was placed under a state of calamity as thousands of people fled their homes because of continuing military operation against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that is suspected to be coddling local and foreign terrorists including Abdul Basit Usman.
The Sangguniang Panlalawigan (Provincial Council) issued a resolution declaring the province under a state of calamity.
Board member Abubakar Katambak said more villagers in several towns left their homes for fear of being caught in the crossfire as soldiers continue their hunt for BIFF rebels.
According to Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team (ARMM-HEART), more than 9,000 families or 41,000 people in eight towns have been displaced by the fighting. These towns were identified as Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Mamasapano, Datu Unsay, Shariff Aguak, Datu Salibo, Rajah Buayan, Datu Hoffer and Datu Saudi.
ARMM-HEART media liaison Jo Myrna Henry said the evacuees are being sheltered in different evacuation centers. Under a state of calamity, the province can release its calamity funds to assist the evacuees.
Soldiers have killed dozens of members of BIFF rebels since the operation began last month, the military said.
The offensive, including attacks with artillery and helicopter gunships, took place in poor farming areas.
Laisa Alamia, ARMM executive secretary, said about 45,000 people have fled their homes. She added that those displaced had taken refuge with relatives or were huddling in schools, town halls and tents that the government were using as evacuation centers.
“They are cramped. It is raining in the evening and very hot in the day. The farmers have even brought their animals, their cattle with them,” Alamia said.
The offensive is aimed at killing or capturing Usman, who is on the US government’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a $1-million bounty.
Usman escaped a police raid in Mindanao on January 25 in which another man on the US government’s list of “most-wanted terrorists,” Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir,alias Marwan, was reported to have been killed.
The BIFF forces and other rebels killed 44 police commandos in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on January 25, triggering a wave of outrage that has shaken the administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
Military spokesperson Col. Restituto Padilla said the offensive against the BIFF will continue.
He added that aside from Usman, the military was hunting four Indonesians and one Arab who have bomb-making expertise.
Capt. Jo Ann Petinglay, spokesperson for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the operation against the BIFF is jointly conducted by the police and military.
“It is important to get these foreign terrorists because they are the ones teaching bomb- making skills,” Padilla told Agence France-Presse.
The BIFF is supposedly a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the nation’s biggest Muslim rebel group.
The MILF is pursuing a peace pact with the government, in which it would accept autonomy instead of independence.