Thousands flee clashes in Maguindanao del Sur
COTABATO CITY, Maguindanao del Norte, Philippines — More than 2,300 families or about 11,000 individuals fled their homes while at least eight fighters were reported to have been killed in the hostilities that broke out between warring groups of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, Maguindanao del Sur province, on April 21, the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The two groups of the MILF had been involved in “rido” (clan war) and territorial dispute since last year and had signed a peace pact only last April 5, but fighting broke out again last Saturday, authorities said.
Col. Dennis Almorato, speaking for the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao provinces, said the displaced civilians were from the adjoining villages of Madia, Elian and Dapiawan of Datu Saudi Ampatuan.
Some of the families took refuge in the school buildings of the nearby villages of Kitango and Dapiawan while others stayed in the homes of relatives.
Among the displaced, Ustadz Samama Datukali, 50, celebrated Eid al-Fitr inside Dapiawan Elementary School where they stayed since Friday night because of the hostilities.
“We fled to safer grounds because the rebels were fighting close to our homes; and because of that, we celebrated Eid al-Fitr here in the Dapiawan school,” he said in a radio interview on Monday.
Police Col. Ruel Sermese, Maguindanao del Sur police provincial director, identified the warring groups as MILF fighters under Commander Moat Sindatuk of the MILF’s 105th base command and Commander Bobby Adam of the former rebel group’s 118th base command.
The two groups have been exchanging gunfire since Saturday, although the fighting had been confined along the borders of Dapiawan and Madia villages in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, a municipality about 50 kilometers south of Cotabato City, the regional seat of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Mayor Edris Sindatuk of the town said at least eight rebels from both sides had died from the fighting but Almorato said they were still verifying reports.
Almorato added that the Army had been securing the civilians and the national highway linking Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Midsayap town in Cotabato province passing through Barangay Dapiawan.
Sermese said MILF leaders had already sent emissaries to the area to defuse the tension. He said police and military forces did not intervene in the fighting to allow MILF leaders to settle the conflict.
But armored personnel carriers had been deployed along the national highway linking Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Datu Piang town, also in Maguindanao del Sur.
The MILF had entered into a peace agreement with the government in 2014, with many of its leaders now holding key positions in the Bangsamoro regional government and assembly that were established in 2019.
However, the majority of the MILF fighters remained armed as the government is still in the process of decommissioning the MILF units and integrating those qualified into the Philippine National Police.
Sermese said the conflict started last year and erupted again on April 5, after which a peaceful settlement was reached and signed by the conflicting parties. But on April 22, fighting broke out again.
Sindatuk appealed to the warring groups to respect the April 5 peace agreement and to abide by their promise to stop using firearms in resolving misunderstandings.