COTABATO CITY—The military on Monday called off an offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) after capturing two camps of the breakaway insurgent group as peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) resumed in Malaysia.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said at least 30 BIFF fighters were killed in clashes over the weekend in villages of a vast marshland bordering the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
Hermoso told the Inquirer that government forces captured the BIFF strongholds in the villages of Damalabas in Datu Piang town and Ganta in Shariff Saydona town, both in Maguindanao.
Hermoso’s body count and his report on the capture of the two BIFF camps could not be independently verified.
Village officials and witnesses have reported between 36 and 80 fighters of the BIFF, a splinter of the MILF, were killed in the fighting, according to other military officials.
BIFF: No casualties
But Abu Misry Mama, BIFF spokesman, denied his group suffered casualties.
“We learned in advance that they were coming,” Mama told the Inquirer by phone.
The BIFF fighters had set up defensive positions before the government forces arrived, Mama said.
“The threat to the peace process has been contained,” Hermoso declared.
“Their strongholds, where they met and planned how to launch attacks, have been captured by our soldiers,” he said.
“The offensive [has been halted], but troops in the region [have been] ordered to be vigilant,” he added.
An Army officer and four soldiers were killed in the clashes. Seven civilians were wounded by shrapnel during an alleged artillery shelling of Ganta.
Hermoso said the military was investigating reports of civilians hurt in the fighting.
“We conducted dialogues with local humanitarian groups regarding the matter. But we will help those conflict victims,” he said.
The fighting displaced about 5,000 residents of the two villages.
MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar on Monday appealed for an immediate end to the hostilities as the Muslim world began to commemorate the holy month of Ramadan.
Peace talks resume
“We have had enough of this (armed conflict) in the past and we are at it again at a time when we are about to observe Ramadan. Let’s put an end to this,” Jaafar said.
The fasting month of Ramadan starts Tuesday.
Despite the fighting in Mindanao, government and MILF negotiators resumed peace talks in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, six months after their last meeting in the Malaysian capital.
On the table was the controversial annex to the preliminary peace agreement proposing wealth-sharing between the government and the MILF in the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region in Mindanao.
The government panel presented its proposal on the annex and the MILF panel submitted its counterproposal, officials said.
“The government’s proposal had more than 10 major points and we answered them point by point,” Jaafar said by phone from Mindanao.
Sensitive provisions included the shares of the government and the MILF in revenue from “energy sources” such as water, wind and, possibly, oil in the Bangsamoro territory, Jaafar said, but declined to go into specifics.
Government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told a television interview that the MILF’s proposal was for a 75-25 percent “across the board sharing” in the group’s favor.
“We’re looking at the totality of the whole annex,” Ferrer told the Inquirer by phone on Monday night. “Included are the different ways of generating revenue for the Bangsamoro, and among these is the share in government income from different natural resources.”
Asked about the sharing proposed by the MILF, Ferrer said: “It’s not as simple as 75 to 25 percent. We’re talking about mineral resources, energy resources, and their share in collected taxes.”
Ferrer described the mood at the resumption of the talks as “very congenial.”
“Both parties share the intention to move forward to reach our goal faster and sooner,” she said.
“There’s a very positive outcome. We’ll see how we can be able to find closure to most of the issues,” she said.
The clashes between government forces and the BIFF over the weekend were not discussed.
The talks will continue on Tuesday.
Signing this week
Jaafar said the goal was to sign an agreement this week.
“We received information that the [government wants] an agreement signing after the meeting. That’s likely, but it all depends on the discussions,” Jaafar said.
“If the government embraces the MILF position with an open heart and mind, why not? If anybody wants to sign an agreement, that’s us,” he added.
The Inquirer tried to reach Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles for comment, but she was attending a Cabinet meeting on the proposed budget for 2014.
The government and the MILF negotiators are on the last stage of peace talks, after signing a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in October last year.
The final peace agreement will be the pillar of Bangsamoro, a larger and more powerful Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.
Until the Army called off the offensive on Monday, there had been fears that the clashes would disrupt the observance of Ramadan, which could derail the Kuala Lumpur talks.
Malacañang promised, however, that the military “would keep the peace” during Ramadan.
Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz, regional Army commander, ordered a halt to the offensive after the fall of the two BIFF camps.
“We don’t want the peace process derailed,” Gapuz said.
Jaafar said the military coordinated the offensive against the BIFF with the MILF.
But if the offensive continued, it would “bring so much hardship to Muslim believers who are fasting,” Jaafar said.
“Some will be forced to leave their homes. They will be displaced and be evacuated,” he said.
“[And] there’s the possibility that the clashes would unnecessarily involve our forces, and escalate into wider areas. That’s why the operations should be stopped,” he said.
“[The offensive] will not derail the talks provided [the fighting] does not escalate into bigger or wider areas,” he added.
Government troops and police, backed by artillery fire, attempted to capture several leaders of the BIFF in two hilly strongholds in Maguindanao on Saturday, but were fired upon, Hermoso said.
MILF fighters encamped near the scene of the clashes moved safely away to avoid being drawn into the fighting, said MILF spokesman Von al Haq, adding the violence would not likely hamper the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur.
Led by Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008 after a botched peace agreement forged during the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The BIFF rejected the MILF’s negotiating peace with the government, preferring to fight for an Islamic state in Mindanao.—With reports from TJ Burgonio in Manila and AP