3 dead as Army, BIFF clash in Maguindanao
CAMP SIONGCO, Maguindanao, Philippines — About 450 families from the village of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, started returning to their homes on Monday, two days after renewed clashes broke out between government troops and Islamic State (IS)-linked militants.
But most of these families still stayed with relatives and camped on roadsides, “waiting for the situation to settle down,” Ismael Hashim, Tukanalipao village chief, told the Inquirer.
A government soldier and two militants were killed while five others were wounded in clashes that started on Saturday and lasted up to 2 a.m. on Sunday.
The fighting happened in the same area where the bloody encounter between the police’s Special Action Force (SAF), a group of Moro rebels and members of the IS-affiliated Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) broke out in January 2015.
The latest clash started 9 a.m. on Saturday as soldiers under the Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion, along with SAF members, were conducting foot patrol to support the serving of an arrest warrant on the leader of one BIFF faction, said Maj. Arvin John Encinas, spokesperson for the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
The main target of the operation was Ismael Abubakar alias Imam Bongos, who, according to the military, was a “hardline” follower of IS since 2015.
Encinas said BIFF gunmen from various factions seemed to have banded together to fight off government forces as the militants were positioned only 300 meters from Tukanalipao River and exchanged fire with soldiers.
This was confirmed by Butch Malang, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) ceasefire committee head, who said the fighting intensified when other IS militants, apart from Abubakar’s allies, and other armed men joined the fighting.
Malang said the government informed them of the law enforcement operation on Thursday, a day before the military and police went to Tukanalipao on Friday.
Due to the prior coordination, personnel from the MILF, who are awaiting decommissioning in keeping with a peace deal, were repositioned, staying along the national highway where civilians had relocated. The village of Tukanalipao is a known MILF community.
“We used every available asset we have … artillery and airplanes because the BIFF [fighters] were too many,” Encinas said.
In January 2015, several teams of elite cops entered Tukanalipao to flush out Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, triggering a carnage that left 44 SAF members, 17 MILF fighters and five civilians dead.