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MILF rebels told: Stay away from fighting

Mohagher Iqbal and Murad Ebrahim. FILE PHOTOS

Mohagher Iqbal and Murad Ebrahim. FILE PHOTOS

COTABATO CITY, Philippines—The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Thursday told its fighters to stay away from fighting between government forces and guerrillas belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The MILF chief peace negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, told the Inquirer that the group’s chief, Murad Ebrahim, issued the directive to all field commanders after Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. ordered an all-out offensive against the BIFF on Wednesday.

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“The directive is clear for our men to step aside and give way to the military operation,” Iqbal said.

“Our only concern and appeal to the military is to ensure the safety of the civilians,” he said.

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Iqbal said the government coordinated the military operation against the BIFF with the MILF.

The MILF, he said, is confident the military operation will not affect its members.

Iqbal gave the assurance that the MILF would help the military by providing information about the whereabouts of Jemaah Islamiyah bombmaker, Basit Usman.

Usman, the Filipino deputy of Malaysian-born Jemaah Islamiyah bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” is believed to be hiding in BIFF territory.

He eluded arrest on Jan. 25, when Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) commandos raided his hideout in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

Marwan was killed in that operation, but the SAF commandos lost 44 of their own in clashes with Moro rebels as they withdrew from the town.

The government, which signed a peace agreement with the MILF in March last year, asked the group not to be in the way to allow government forces to go after Usman.

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Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday said the assistance being provided by the MILF to the military operation against the BIFF was part of confidence-building measures, but could not say how long it would last.

Gazmin defended the offensive against the BIFF, saying Catapang ordered it to stop the violence and the continued displacement of civilians in the affected villages in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

He said he had been receiving military reports about the Army’s collaboration with the MILF in going after the BIFF.

“This is one example of cooperation between the AFP and the MILF and it is against the BIFF. I think they have been successful in driving away the BIFF,” he said.

Asked if the MILF would continue to be an asset of the military, Gazmin said it would be a dream come true but could not say whether the MILF assistance against lawless elements would be permanent.

He said the proposed Bangsamoro region would be better off without recalcitrant elements like the BIFF.

Gazmin also appealed to the public to continue to trust the military and in its capability to protect the people and the state.

“We are doing all we can to maintain peace so economic development could take off. That is why we really need the communities to get rid of the BIFF and other lawless elements,” he said.

Gazmin said more than 20,000 families have been displaced as a result of the turf war between the BIFF and the MILF in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

The evacuees, he said, are being assisted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Col. Restituto Padilla, AFP spokesperson, said the offensive against the BIFF started last weekend.

Padilla cited information that the BIFF was trying to occupy a portion of the MILF-occupied villages, sparking violence that made the evacuation of civilians necessary.

He said the Army, backed by artillery and air strikes, intervened this week to stop the fighting and drive away the BIFF.

No fighting between the two groups has been reported in the past two days, he said.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, biff, Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., MILF, Mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Murad Ebrahim
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