ALEOSAN, North Cotabato—Fierce fighting erupted on Saturday along the border of Maguindanao and North Cotabato after a breakaway Islamist rebel group, believed to be backed by foreign terrorists, attacked an Army detachment and moved in to control a major highway in the area.
Initial reports said two suspected rebels were killed and two Army men were wounded since the fighting began, while around 2,000 residents fled their homes in the affected villages of Aleosan and Pikit.
The military has rushed reinforcements to the area and launched mortar strikes to prevent the rebels from taking control of the key highway, which links North Cotabato and Davao City.
The rebel offensive, led by a group identified as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), followed a series of bombings that claimed 14 lives and wounded 70 in various parts of Mindanao.
Military officials said Zulkifli Bin Hir, a Malaysian bomb expert also known in other Southeast Asian countries as Marwan, was believed to be among the terrorists hiding in BIFF territories.
Col. Dickson Hermoso of the 6th Infantry Division, said the fighting between government forces and BIFF gunmen was concentrated in Barangay Bualan in Pikit, North Cotabato, and in Sitio Tubak, Barangay Pagangan, Aleosan.
The two areas are situated near Datu Piang, Maguindanao, where the BIFF maintains a major camp.
Lt. Col. Donald Gumiran, commander of the Army’s 7th Infantry Battalion, said more clashes were being reported as of Saturday afternoon as more BIFF forces arrived in several other villages.
From the side of the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade, 60- and 81-millimeter mortars and 105 howitzers were being fired to deter advancing gunmen.
According to Hermoso, the incident began overnight Friday when militiamen reported being fired at by BIFF forces from across the Rio Grande de Mindanao, which separates Pikit and Aleosan from Datu Piang.
When soldiers went to reinforce the beleaguered militiamen, they were met by shots from rebels with high-powered firearms.
He identified the suspected BIFF members killed only as Sanday and Dimasangkay, while Sergeants Greg Sarte and Alexis Amando, both of the 40th Infantry Battalion, were wounded and rushed to the Aleosan District Hospital.
The same rebel group set off a roadside bomb on Wednesday in nearby Maguindanao province, wounding seven soldiers, and it warned of more attacks.
The BIFF, led by former MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato, broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is currently negotiating a peace agreement with the government.
The military said another roadside bomb believed to have been planted by the group exploded early Saturday in another town in Maguindanao. There were no casualties. A second homemade bomb was found and safely detonated in the same area.
Provincial Gov. Emmylou Mendoza said around 2,000 people who fled their homes to avoid being caught in the fighting were in a village schoolhouse.
Families carrying bags of clothes and cooking implements dragged their water buffalo and cattle into the village of Nalapaan yesterday as exploding mortar rounds could be heard in the distance.
“We can hear the fighting from here,” said Tibungko Abdul, village chief of Nalapaan.
“As of now we feel we are safe here, but if this worsens we may have to leave for the town center as well,” he said, referring to Pikit, the town nearest to Nalapaan and to the villages where the evacuees had come from.
Meanwhile, the military is also pursuing rebels of another extremist group, the Abu Sayyaf, in Basilan province. At least one soldier and about seven militants were reported by the military to have been killed in the fighting in Basilan on Thursday.
Local army commander Col. Carlito Galvez said the offensive was meant to prevent the group from making more bombs for attacks after Eid’l Fitr, the three-day festivities celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that began Thursday. With reports from AP and AFP