BIFF rebels, soldiers clash in N. Cotabato
Hundreds of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rebels attacked a militia outpost in North Cotabato province at dawn on Wednesday in what the military called an “opportunistic activity” designed to show off their capabilities.
But the BIFF rebels, numbering 200 to 300, were beaten back by security forces who had been expecting attacks intended to help Islamic State-inspired terrorists cornered by government troops in Marawi City.
The rebels attacked the Barangay People’s Augmentation Team outpost at Malagakit village in Pigcawayan town, which they probably believed was lightly defended because soldiers weren’t regularly stationed there, said Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“They were taking advantage of the situation that we have a very slight, lightly defended outpost and they [were thinking] our forces were elsewhere in the province,” Padilla told reporters in Malacañang.
But military forces stationed in the area quickly arrived and repelled the attack, forcing the Moro rebels to pull back to an elementary school in the village before withdrawing.
There were no reports of casualties, but Capt. Nap Alcarioto, spokesperson for the 602nd Infantry Brigade, reported that the rebels took a number of civilians to cover their retreat.
“They’ve withdrawn from the area, they’re no longer there. The school area is safe,” Padilla said.
“The troops that have responded quickly to the incident are now [pursuing the rebels],” he said, adding the military was verifying the report about hostages.
But Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesperson for the 6th Infantry Division, reported that fighting was still going on as of 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
During a lull in the battle, 31 people, including a dozen children, were either allowed to dash to freedom or escaped from the school.
Many of the rebels managed to escape from the school after freeing the hostages, Encinas said.
Earlier, Abu Misri Mama, a BIFF spokesperson, acknowledged in a radio interview that his group staged the attack, but he said they did not intend to take hostages.
He said his group was just securing the civilians.
Civilians to be released
“We protected them from the bullets of the Army. We will release them later. We did not use them as human shields,” he said.
The BIFF, hiding in the marshy heartland of Mindanao, broke off from the largest Moro rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in 2008 partly to protest peace talks with the government.
The breakaway rebels, however, have been weakened by battle setbacks and some commanders have tried to align themselves with the Islamic State (IS) in the hope of securing funding from the Middle East-based jihadist group, according to the military.
Padilla said terrorist groups, including the BIFF, had joined forces with the IS-inspired Maute group, whose fighters have been battling government forces in Marawi in neighboring Lanao del Sur province since May 23.
“That’s why the Maute group increased in numbers, because of the attempt to unify these terrorists organizations who have pledged allegiance to [IS],” he said.
Padilla said the BIFF attack in Pigcawayan was not linked to the Maute siege of Marawi but was just an “opportunistic activity.”
“This comes from those who in the past have been harassing and attacking our outposts,” he said.
There was also no reason to believe that the attack on Pigcawayan could be part of an attempt by IS-inspired groups to open a new front to ease pressure on the Maute group cornered in Marawi.
“It’s too small an effort. It was just a harassment case,” he said, adding that armed groups in Mindanao had been harassing military positions even before the Maute attack on Marawi.
Pigcawayan is 190 kilometers south of Marawi, too far to be used for a diversionary attack intended to disrupt the military offensive against the Maute group in the predominantly Muslim city.
The Pigcawayan local government reported that 62 families, or 244 people, fled Malagakit and 15 families, or 59 people, left their homes in neighboring Banacagon village during the fighting between government security forces and BIFF rebels.
Chief Insp. Realan Mamon, the municipal police chief, said an undetermined number of people were trapped in their homes during the firefight.
School was called off throughout the town on Wednesday, said Omar Obas, Cotabato Schools Division superintendent.
He said the shutdown affected more than 15,000 elementary and high school students. —With reports from the wires
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