Hundreds flee fighting between Moro rebel factions
COTABATO CITY, Philippines—Followers of renegade Moro rebel leader Ameril Ombra Kato have been trying to drive away forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from three barangays in the municipality of Datu Piang in Maguindanao since Sunday, forcing hundreds to evacuate to safer areas for fear of getting trapped in the cross-fire.
The military said at least five guerillas have been killed in the firefights and that the military has not intervened in the fighting.
“We provided security to the fleeing civilians,” said Col. Prudencio Asto, 6th Infantry Division spokesperson.
Asto, citing reports from the field, said at least three of Kato’s followers and two from the other armed groups were believed killed in the “on-and-off” battles.
Kato, a foreign-trained Islamic missionary, bolted from the MILF last year and now leads the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which the military claims consists of rogue MILF fighters linked to extortion and kidnapping.
Asto could not say whether Kato was directly involved in the fighting.
Among Kato’s field men were commanders long wanted for kidnapping and other heinous offenses, Asto said.
According to Asto, the hostilities in Datu Piang started when Kato’s men, led by Commander Abunawas, went around in a village controlled by MILF Commander Adzmi, and sent a message telling Adzmi to vacate the village.
Adzmi reportedly refused and engaged the intruders in a gun battle.
“These were shoot-and-run type of skirmishes, sometimes both sides traded mortars,” Asto said in a phone interview, adding that some of Kato’s men have retreated toward the border between Datu Piang and Midsayap in North Cotabato.
Citing intelligence reports, Asto said the followers of Kato wanted to establish a camp in the contested area.
Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice chair for political affairs, said the conflict was a “domestic” one and was being addressed by the MILF central committee.
“That is a long standing land dispute, we are addressing it,” he said.
Asto said the recurring encounters in the area since Sunday displaced about a hundred families, now housed in makeshift evacuation sites in villages near the Datu Piang town proper.
“Their leaders should address this problem because it’s fasting month and people are weak and would be very difficult for them to stay in evacuation sites,” Asto said, adding that 6th Infanty Division chief Maj. Gen. Rey Ardo has asked the government’s ceasefire committee to exhaust all peaceful means of resolving the conflict.
“If all peaceful means of addressing the trouble fails, the military will be forced to bring in combatants to secure the affected villages,” Asto said. “In the meantime, we stay at a distance and provide security to civilians, mostly women and children.”
In 2008, Kato launched attacks on villages in Central Mindanao after the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government and the MILF.
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