COTABATO CITY—Five soldiers and 18 rogue Moro insurgents have been killed in clashes ahead of the resumption of peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the military said on Sunday.
Military officials said more than 100 insurgents from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the MILF, launched simultaneous attacks on government troops in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces on Saturday night.
The attacks occurred two days before government and MILF peace negotiators were to resume talks in Kuala Lumpur.
“The BIFF is hell-bent on derailing the peace talks by launching simultaneous attacks against civilian and military installations,” said Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.
“We will not allow the BIFF to destroy the peace [deal] that the government and the MILF [are working on],” said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Led by former MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF has rejected the preliminary peace agreement signed last year by the government and the MILF, preferring to fight for a separate Islamic state in Mindanao.
Gapuz said recent “threats and atrocities” perpetrated by the BIFF prompted the military, the police and a joint government-MILF group to launch an assault on the rogue insurgents.
The BIFF ambushed an Army truck in Barangay (village) Damablas, Datu Piang town, Maguindanao province, at 10 a.m. on Saturday, killing 1st Lt. Gerardo Flores and two soldiers, according to Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.
At about the same time, BIFF fighters positioned in Barangay Reina Regente in Datu Piang launched an attack on the camp of the 7th Infantry Battalion (IB) in Barangay Paidu Pulangi in Pikit town, North Cotabato, killing Pfc. Megan Bello and Pfc. Jonathan Mores, according to Capt. Anthony Bulao, spokesman for the 602nd Infantry Brigade.
Bulao said the 7th IB mounted retaliatory attacks, forcing BIFF forces to abandon their position and flee.
Bulao could not say whether the BIFF suffered casualties.
That clash was followed 20 minutes later by an encounter between troops from the 45th Infantry Brigade and BIFF fighters in Barangay Dasawao, Shariff Saydona Mustapha town.
Ten minutes later, government forces and BIFF insurgents clashed in Sitio (settlement) Mapagkaya, Barangay Paidu Polangi in Pikit town.
Hermoso said up to 18 BIFF fighters were killed in the sporadic clashes.
At least six civilians, including a 2-year-old girl, were hurt by shrapnel from artillery fire coming from the government side in the fighting in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, according to Omar Kalimbang, a village councilor from Barangay Ganta.
Kalimbang, who was hit by shrapnel on the chest, said from a Cotabato City hospital that the fighting started at around 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“We immediately evacuated and sought shelter at Ganta Elementary School,” Kalimbang said.
The fighting went on until about 4 p.m., he said.
“Two hours after the fighting stopped, we went out of the school to get our things from our homes and secure our livestock. But as we were walking to our community, artillery shells fell from the sky,” Kalimbang said.
He could not tell how many shells hit Ganta.
“We saw and heard successive explosions. I was hit [by shrapnel] when a shell exploded near me,” he said.
Also hurt in the explosion were Fatima Balilid and her 2-year-old daughter, Nasser Kamid, Alon Alimundo and Donna Alimundo.
Rolly Kamid, another councilor in Ganta, said the artillery shells dropped about 30 meters from evacuation centers in the village.
He said it was impossible that government forces did not know the shells were hitting civilian areas.
Residents of the village said the shelling was carried out to clear the area and recover military vehicles there.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesman for the BIFF, said the Moro insurgents damaged three military armored vehicles and sank a speedboat during the attacks.
BIFF fighters also seized an M60 machine gun from government forces, Mama said, referring to the ambush on the military truck in Datu Piang.
The BIFF accused the military of targeting civilians to pressure the Moro group to surrender.
“The soldiers knew that civilians were in the area. They did it on purpose,” Mama said.
Ali Indayla, a spokesman for the Kawagib Moro Human Rights, said the military had consistently attacked Moro areas during Ramadan in the past few years.
“This is total disrespect for the Bangsamoro people,” Indayla said. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts on July 9.
“Civilian communities are suffering from the combat heavy mentality of the military. We condemn these atrocities perpetrated by the government,” Indayla said.
She said more than 100 families were temporarily staying in schools, mosques and day-care centers.
She said the 6th Infantry Division must be immediately investigated and those responsible for attacks must be punished.
Hermoso said the military was verifying reports about civilian casualties.
In Manila, Zagala said the military was concerned about the safety and security of civilians and with the prevention of any spillover in fighting between government forces and the BIFF, but “we will continue our efforts to put the BIFF… in the bar of justice.”
Bring home peace
As the government and the MILF prepared to resume peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, 50 nongovernment organizations and peace-building networks called on the negotiators from both sides to bring home a “breakthrough for the Bangsamoro people” by settling the last contentious issues in the preliminary peace agreement.
Among those issues are wealth and power sharing between the government and the Bangsamoro, the new Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao provided for under the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed by the Aquino administration and the MILF in October last year.
A third issue is “normalization” or the disarming of the MILF and the reassimilation of its fighters into society.
The conclusion of a final peace agreement has been delayed for six months because of differences between the two sides on the last three issues.—With reports from Marlon Ramos in Manila; Ryan D. Rosauro, Inquirer Mindanao; AP and AFP
Originally posted: 3:44 pm | Sunday, July 7th, 2013