Moro rebels attack North Cotabato
KIDAPAWAN CITY—At least three hostages were still being held in a remote village in Midsayap, North Cotabato, by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), after the breakaway rebel group stormed several remote barangays (villages) and clashed with government forces early yesterday morning, a military official said.
A soldier and four BIFF members were reported killed in the firefight, while two soldiers were reportedly wounded.
According to regional military spokesperson Col. Dickson Hermoso, the BIFF stormed the Midsayap township early Monday morning, leading to clashes with responding government forces that left one soldier dead and several rebels wounded. As troops closed in, the withdrawing rebels split into several groups and took four teachers and 11 farmers hostage, although some of them were reportedly released later.
Midsayap Mayor Romeo Araña said the teachers from Malingao Elementary School had earlier sent the children home when fighting erupted between the BIFF rebels and government troops, but found themselves trapped in the school after they feared being hit by stray bullets.
The BIFF later took the teachers and several farmers hostage and used them as human shields.
“One of the teachers who managed to flee told me they were not harmed; they were just told not to leave the school,” Araña said.
“We are negotiating for the safe release of the victims,” he added.
Unconfirmed reports indicated that only three hostages remained and that a local Muslim preacher had been sent to negotiate for their release.
The violence came as troops cleared another southern city, Zamboanga, of a separate band of rebels who took more than 100 civilians hostage on Sept. 9 after they were repulsed by government forces. About 40 rebels holding some 20 hostages were still holed up in two coastal communities in Zamboanga, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala.
100 BIFF rebels
Hermoso said around 100 BIFF rebels from Datu Piang and Datu Shariff Saydona in Maguindanao attacked the villages of Tugal and Raradangan in Midsayap Monday at dawn.
As the Army launched its offensive, the BIFF rebels broke into smaller groups and proceeded to the villages of Polomoguin and Malingao where they took hostages, he added.
But Abu Misry Mama, speaking for the BIFF, denied reports their forces were holding civilians in Midsayap.
“Hindi ito mga hostage. Niligtas namin at pinatabi kasi baka matamaan ng bala ng mga sundalo (They’re not hostages. We got them out of the way so they won’t get hit by bullets from government forces),” Misry told the Inquirer by phone.
Misry warned of more attacks from the BIFF and said they were targetting CVOs (civilian volunteer organizations), (army) detachments and even civilians who had guns. He added that civilians living near military detachments should leave the area.
“If the soldiers won’t leave, the (civilians) should,” he said.
Misry also warned that they might set the Midsayap municipal hall on fire “because the government is there.”
He, however, stressed that the attacks in Midsayap had nothing to do with the Zamboanga City siege where MNLF forces have been engaged in a running gunbattle with government troops for two weeks now.
A professor at Notre Dame of Midsayap College said his wife and the other teachers at Malingao Elementary School were still being held captive by BIFF forces as of 3 p.m. on Monday.
No more contact
“When I called her through her mobile phone, a man answered and told me to stop calling,” the college professor said, adding that the man had identified himself as a BIFF member.
“We have no more contact with any of them,” he said, adding that from where they were, he and the other local officials could see the movement of people on the school grounds.
Some hostages in Midsayap were able to escape, said Loreto Cabaya, a member of the North Cotabato provincial board. “The rebels suddenly arrived. Some were not even wearing their uniforms but changed in the village later. Others did not have guns and were thought to be villagers. But they later emerged armed,” Cabaya told a TV network.
Araña said only one road led to the Malingao Elementary School, but that government soldiers could not move forward for fear the rebels might hurt the hostages.
Hermoso said the safety of the teachers and civilians was a priority, although the military had already identified the enemies’ location. He said the enemy was just buying time and waiting for nightfall so they could escape.
Capt. Antonio Bulao, speaking for the 602nd Infantry Brigade, said the BIFF had earlier planned to take over portions of the Cotabato-Davao national highway, particularly in Aleosan town, but a clash with militiamen forced them to retreat toward the Midsayap barangays (villages).
“That was their original plan; there were about 150 of them,” Bulao said.
Gov. Lala Taliño-Mendoza said they were closely monitoring and coordinating with the military and police. “We are on full alert. The local government’s priority now is our evacuees,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said President Aquino had “full confidence” in the ability of the government forces and the leadership of AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista to handle the situation in North Cotabato.
“We have resources capable of handling both Zamboanga and Midsayap,” Lacierda said.
Reports said the BIFF rebels were against the ongoing peace talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government, and had vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland. They had reportedly planted roadside explosives and raided villages in a bid to disrupt the peace process.—With reports from Edwin O. Fernandez, Charlie C. Señase, Inquirer Mindanao; Gil Cabacungan, Nikko Dizon and Inquirer wires
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