More civilians trapped in clashes between BIFF insurgents, gov’t soldiersBy Charlie Señase, Edwin Fernandez, Jeoffrey Maitem
COTABATO CITY, Philippines – More civilians are being trapped in the Maguindanao clashes between a breakaway Moro rebel group and Philippine government troops, and some of the civilians have been hoisting white flags to avoid being targeted, according to officials in the province.
Mike Sula, municipal planning officer of Datu Unsay, where the fighting has been the heaviest since Sunday, said about 700 persons have been trapped in Barangay Satan.
Earlier, some 1,000 persons were trapped on a hill, in Datu Saudi Ampatuan. They remained there as the fighting continued, a report from relief officials said.
“They raised white flags to inform the warring groups they are not combatants,” Sula said.
Authorities earlier said they have been trying to forge a temporary ceasefire between the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the military to allow fleeing civilians to pass through.
Hapless residents fleeing clashes between soldiers and gunmen belonging to the group led by Ameril Umra Kato since Sunday have been flooding evacuation centers in at least six Maguindanao towns.
Loreto Rirao, head of the disaster response office of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), placed the number of evacuees at 25,650 individuals or about 5,130 families and are being assisted by government and private aid agencies in the town centers of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Shariff Aguak, Ampatuan, Guindulungan, Datu Unsay and Datu Abdula Sangki.
Although the clashes were mainly between the BIFF and soldiers, civilians could not avoid fearing for their lives, Pombain Karon-Kader, ARMM social welfare secretary, said.
Since Sunday, she said two civilians had died in the crossfire.
Rirao said reports reaching the ARMM’s regional disaster risk reduction management council indicated that some 22 houses were razed since Sunday in the town of Datu Unsay.
He said that as of Wednesday, 10 persons were killed in the clashes—including the two civilians.
Rirao said based on reports reaching them, the military and the BIFF suffered four fatalities each.
The slain soldiers were identified as Sergeant Sonny Estabillo, Private Daniel Aragon, and Privates First Class Arsenio Nunescan and Henry Caunga.
Four soldiers—identified as 1Lt. John Dave Aguilar, Cpl. Rommel Mantos and Pfc Mar Batanas—were also wounded.
Rirao said some evacuees in several areas had not received assistance as of yet because of the fire fights that would endanger the lives of aid workers.
He said a ceasefire should be implemented in some villages of Datu Unsay, where fighting was the fiercest, before relief goods could be sent in.
Kader said three truckloads of relief goods were awaiting distribution “depending on the safety of our workers and volunteers.”
The BIFF has launched attacks since Sunday in the six Maguindanao towns in the pretext of avenging the death of a senior member by an alleged military sniper.
Details about the incident were not clear but the clashes triggered a fresh wave of displacements in the province, which has not really seen real peace since the Moro rebellion erupted in the 1960s.
The economic life in the six Maguindanao towns has come to a stop.
Cotabato City, which is quite dependent on the Maguindanao-General Santos City Highway, is also being affected as goods could not be safely transported there now.
The highway’s closure forced some petroleum dealers in the city to temporarily close-shop because of lack of supply, Mary Anne Tan, owner of a Shell filling station, said.
The BIFF said it could not guarantee the safety of civilians forcing their way using the Maguindanao-General Santos City but he blamed the military for this.
“Our apology, but the highway would still be unsafe for civilian commuters because of the presence of the military,” Abu Misry Mama, BIFF spokesperson, said.
Col. Prudencio Asto, spokesperson of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, soldiers – backed by armored personnel carriers – have mounted fresh assaults against BIFF forces in Datu Saudi Ampatuan.
“We are conducting surgical operations against the BIFF,” he said.
Asto said driving away the BIFF in Datu Saudi Ampatuan would lead to the opening of the Maguindanao-General Santos Highway.