COTABATO CITY—Government forces on Saturday launched a major assault in Maguindanao to flush out members of the so-called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a recent breakaway rebel faction.
Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, said the offensive was conducted in coordination with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is engaged in peace negotiations with the government.
Gapuz said the BIFF, a breakaway group of the MILF, was “hell bent on derailing the peace process” between the MILF and the government.
Led by former MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF broke away from the MILF after disagreements on the conduct of the peace talks.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, 6th ID spokesperson, said the first encounter between forces from the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion and BIFF rebels occurred in Sitio Dam, Barangay Damablas, Datu Piang at around 10:40 a.m. on Saturday.
It was followed by a clash between the breakaway group and elements of the 45th Infantry Brigade in Barangay Dasawao, Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, about 20 minutes later.
Another encounter transpired about the same time in Sitio Mapagkaya, Barangay Paidu Polangi, in Pikit, North Cotabato.
Hermoso believes the BIFF members harassed soldiers in Pikit to divert the attention of the military.
Clashes were still ongoing as of press time. There were no confirmed casualty reports.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesperson of the BIFF, criticized the assault as an “act of terrorism,” explaining that the military trespassed on Moro land.
In a phone interview, Mama said the objective of the government was to paralyze a major camp of the rebel group in Barangay Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha.
“We are using guerrilla warfare, even if we have the capacity for direct confrontation,” Mama said.
Gapuz claimed government forces were in control of the situation.
“We are on top of the situation. We are ready and committed along with our counterparts from the MILF to defend our communities from BIFF abuses and the massive displacements and lost livelihoods they caused which are clear violations of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and to preserve and guard the primacy of the peace process in Mindanao,” Gapuz said.
Von Al-Haq, spokesperson of the MILF’s military arm, said the government forces were closely coordinating with the leadership of the MILF.
“Our forces were already repositioned to avoid any misencounters,” Al-Haq said.
Last June 19, the BIFF harassed a military detachment in President Quirino, Sultan Kudarat, killing a militiaman and a farmer.
On the same day, the rebel group used sniper rifles and rocket propelled grenades to attack a patrol base of the 33rd Infantry Battalion.
On June 21, eight BIFF members were captured by government forces in Barangay Kulasi, Bagumbayan town. Five were turned over to the President Quirino municipal police and charged with illegal possession of explosives, while three BIFF members, who were found to be minors, were turned-over to Department of Social Welfare and Development.
A website in the name of Ameril Umra Kato goes under the banner “Islamic Emirate Of The Philippines” and vows to do its part in “establishing the Law of Allah on Earth.”
Kato is facing charges he led attacks in Mindanao after the Supreme Court junked in 2008 a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain already signed between the Philippine peace panel and the MILF. The MILF said it later expelled Kato.
Kato had given media interviews in the past where he said “the MILF does not represent the real sentiment of the Bangsamoro people.”