ZAMBOANGA CITY: Government forces on Friday battled rebels from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the province of Maguindanao in the restive Muslim autonomous region in southern Philippines but there were no immediate reports of casualties on both sides.
The fighting erupted in the town of Datu Unsay, a known stronghold of the Ampatuan political clan, which is opposed to Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu.
Mangudadatu, who also belongs to a powerful political clan, accused his rival as among those involved in the massacre of 44 elite police officers on January 25 during a secret anti-terror operation that took down Malaysian bomber Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan in Mamasapano town.
Police tagged the BIFF and Moro Islamic Liberation Front members and armed civilians as behind the killing of the Special Action Force commandos in Tukanalipao village, a known stronghold of the MILF, which signed a peace deal with Manila last year.
The Western Mindanao Command and 6th Infantry Division did not release any information on the progress of the new all-out offensive ordered by Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. against the BIFF, supposedly a breakaway group from the larger MILF now fighting for Muslim independence in the troubled region.
But Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for the BIFF, said they are ready to face the military offensive and even dared military and police commanders to come and get them.
The MILF has joined the military in the hunt for BIFF members as part of the peace agreement.
Some BIFF and MILF commanders previously fought in North Cotabato and Maguindanao not because of the renewed government offensive, but because of an old grudge and territorial claims and control over vast tracts of land in the provinces.
Despite the fighting among its commanders, most of the BIFF and MILF members are relatives and have defended each other or fought side by side against government forces.
Military and police authorities had accused the MILF of coddling Zulkifli and Abdul Basit Usman, a former member of the rebel group, and other Malaysian and Indonesian members of the Jemaah Islamiya.
The MILF has strongly denied this allegation.
Zulkifli was killed by the police commandos inside a thatched hut deep inside the territory of the MILF 105th Base Command.
His hideout was recently burned down but authorities could not say who was behind it.
The 44 police officers were on their way to rejoin more than 300 SAF members deployed near the village after killing Zulkifli and cutting off his finger for DNA analysis when MILF forces, aided by BIFF fighters, ambushed them, sparking the day-long firefight.