ZAMBOANGA CITY: Thousands of people have fled fierce fighting between military and rebel forces in the southern Philippines, officials said.
Clashes were reported in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato where Army soldiers and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have been fighting.
Rebel sources said at least a dozen soldiers had been killed in the fighting since last week and several BIFF members were also reported slain and wounded.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center also reported that at least seven people, including a four-year-old child, were injured in the shelling in the village of Ganta in Datu Piang town in Maguindanao.
There was no immediate statement from the provincial and regional governments on how it would resolve the crisis. Many of those who fled their homes are in temporary shelters and have no access to medical facilities or food.
Most of the members of the BIFF were former fighters of the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which is currently negotiating peace with Manila.
But the slow progress of the peace talks is also threatening the negotiations and many rebel leaders are becoming restless and some have threatened to wage war if a peaceful settlement to the problems in Mindanao is not reached soon.
Manila has downplayed the threats and said the talks, which resumed on Monday, are going on smoothly even though the MILF has rejected a government draft on wealth sharing in the so-called Bangsamoro homeland.
The government on Monday expressed confidence that the joint cease-fire committee with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) can help settle the new dispute with the BIFF.
Fighting on Sunday between government troops and the BIFF, a splinter group of the MILF, left five soldiers and 18 insurgents from the BIFF dead.
Quoting a statement from government chief negotiator Miriam Ferrer, Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said the government is confident the conflict could defused by the Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).
The CCCH and AHJAG were set up by government and MILF negotiators for proper coordination and implementation of the ceasefire agreement.
The agreement, crafted in Cagayan de Oro City in July 1997, calls on the two sides to cooperate in arresting criminals and terrorists in areas covered by the preliminary truce.
The AHJAG is made up of representatives from the MILF, the Armed Forces, and the Philippine National Police (PNP).
The Army’s 6th Infantry Division (6ID) on Monday paid its last respects to the four soldiers killed in Maguindanao—1Lt. Gerardo Flores, Privates First Class Megan Bello and Jonathan Mores and two others.
“We are saddened by their deaths but it is with pride and honor that 6ID mourn the deaths of our fallen officer and men, for they did not die in vain, they bravely put their lives in the line of fire to protect and secure our civilian communities while observing the primacy of the ongoing GPH-MILF peace process,” Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz, said. Gapuz is the 6ID commanding general, not the regional military spokesman as earlier published.
“It is our mandate to serve and protect the people and maintain peace and security,” he added.
During the 7th Infantry Battalion’s 40th anniversary celebration in Pikit, Cotabato, last week, Gapuz urged soldiers “to protect every citizen from violence, threats, intimidation or harassment of any kind by any group or individual.”
On Saturday, BIFF rebels attacked soldiers in Barangay Paidu Pulangi in Pikit, North Cotabato, killing Bello and Mores of the 7th Infantry Battalion.
While the combatants of the 7th IB were trading shots with the bandits, another BIFF group set off a powerful roadside bomb in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town in the second district of Maguindanao, killing Flores and his two soldiers. Flores and his slain men belonged to the 68th Infantry Battalion.
Responding soldiers and militiamen engaged the BIFF rebels in a two-hour firefight.
Barangay officials said the battle waned only after soldiers killed eight BIFF rebels and wounded several others, forcing them to retreat.
Another BIFF group also attacked on Saturday pursuing members of the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion and 45th Infantry Battalion in Barangay Bakat, Shariff Saydona Mustapha town also in Maguindanao, provoking a two-hour fight.
Members of the Saidona municipal peace and order council, citing feedback by villagers, said 18 BIFF gunmen were killed in the ensuing clash.
Soldiers and policemen are tracking down the rebels in coordination with the AHJAG.
The BIFF rebels, according to Col. Dickson Hermoso, regional spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division, also killed a member of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit and a farmer in President Quirino town in Sultan Kudarat.
Hermoso said the rebels also tried but failed to take over an Army detachment of the 33rd Infantry Battalion before escaping towards a marshy area near Maguindanao’s General Salipada K. Pendatun town, bringing with them more than a dozen water buffaloes they took from farmers at gunpoint.
The BIFF had also earlier set off improvised explosives and fired rockets and assault rifles on two detachments of the Army’s 40th Infantry Battalion in Midsayap, North Cotabato.
They also strafed the homes of farmers in Barangay Kabingi in Datu Saudi, Maguindanao who refused to shell out protection money, Hermoso added.