ARMM evacuees safe to go home, authorities sayBy Charlie Señase and Jeoffrey Maitem, Edwin Fernandez
COTABATO CITY — Civilian and military officials in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said it was already safe for evacuees to return to their homes.
The pronouncement came even as the military reported that Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) members still managed to mount attacks against soldiers.
The latest was on Friday, during which, three soldiers were wounded when BIFF forces fired on a military detachment in Datu Unsay town.
Colonel Mayoralgo de la Cruz, commander of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade, said the evacuees could now “safely return home, as clearing operations continued.”
“They can now slowly return home because we have already driven away the rebels deep into the mountains,” Dela Cruz said.
ARMM Governor-in-charge Mujiv Hataman had supported Dela Cruz’s assessment.
Hataman said based on initial post-conflict assessment, a return program for the evacuees “would be more doable this time than it was, say last week.”
He said returning evacuees would still be provided assistance until their lives return to the pre-August 5 attack situation.
Based on the recent data provided by the ARMM’s disaster management office, the number of evacuees totaled 48,000 people.
“Our program has shifted from relief distribution to sending the IDPs back home upon the military’s recommendation,” Loreto Rirao, ARMM’s disaster management office head, said.
The military said while the evacuees were being asked to return home to the affected areas in the towns of Shariff Aguak, Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi, Datu Hoffer, and Ampatuan, it was continuing with its manhunt against remnants of the BIFF.
But Colonel Prudencio Asto, spokesperson of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, admitted the manhunt would be quite difficult because of several factors.
He said a number of retreating BIFF forces was being coddled by their relatives in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“Some of the members of BIFF men have relatives in the MILF. Blood is thicker than water. We know that some are now hiding in the camps of the MILF,” Asto said.
Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief negotiator, said he could not confirm or deny Asto’s statement that many BIFF forces have relatives in the MILF.
But he said the military could always use the coordinating committee on cessation of hostilities if it indeed has information the fleeing gunmen sought refuge in MILF territories.
Iqbal also renewed the MILF’s call on BIFF forces to return to its fold.
“We are calling on BIFF forces, who were not involved in the recent fighting…our doors are still open. They can go back to us anytime,” Iqbal said.
The BIFF is a breakaway group of MILF rebels led by Ameril Umra Kato.
Asto said as to BIFF forces, who had mixed with evacuees in the evacuation centers, the military was now talking with village officials to isolate them from legitimate evacuees.
“It would be difficult for us to quickly identify them as rebels. That’s the reason we are doing these along with village officials there,” he said.
“We wanted the village chieftains’ to point one by one…honest to goodness, those not real evacuees and hand them over to us for filing of appropriate charges,” he said.
Meanwhile, Secretary Jamar Kulayan of the ARMM’s Department of Education said he had instructed principals in at least 28 Maguindanao schools now being used as evacuation centers to find ways for classes to resume.
He said the use of classrooms as evacuation centers should not hinder students from continuing with their classes, which have stalled since August 5.