Up to 7,000 families in ARMM flee fighting of Army, BIFF — local officials
COTABATO CITY, Philippines – More and more civilians in the adjoining municipalities of Mamasapano, Rajah Buayan, Shariff Saydona, Shariff Aguak and Datu Saudi Ampatuan, all in Maguindanao, have been fleeing to safer areas to avoid getting caught in the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, local officials said.
Rajah Buayan is adjacent to Mamasapano and areas where the military is pursuing the outlawed BIFF, and have been deemed safer by civilians as of the moment, according to Rajah Buayan Mayor Zamzamin Ampatuan.
Local officials said armed BIFF men have been sighted in the marshland of Datu Piang and Shariff Saydona.
Ampatuan said artillery fire was heard Saturday night in Barangay (the village of) Ganta in Shariff Saydona town.
Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has sent staff of the Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team (HEART) to communities to attend to the needs of evacuees.
ARMM’s HEART reported that as of Saturday afternoon, 5,727 families were staying in several evacuation centers.
Fighting has affected at least seven villages in the town of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, displacing at least 1,691 families, ARMM HEART reported.
Four villages were affected in the town of Shariff Aguak and at least 1,273 families have left their homes, while 165 families are in an evacuation center in Mamasapano town and 255 families from the same area have fled to the nearby municipality of Rajah Buayan.
ARMM HEART said 2,119 families were also displaced in Datu Salibo while 49 others evacuated in Datu Hoffer.
Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Toto Mangudadatu told reporters the number of displaced families following the skirmishes in Datu Unsay Friday could reach 7,000 families and “more people are fleeing.”
Mangudadatu said the provincial government has been attending to their needs but he expected the local government units, being the first responders, to act swiftly.
Rajah Buayan Mayor Ampatuan said civilians from nearby Shariff Saydona and Mamasapano fled to his town, including members of the armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to give way to the military action against the BIFF.
“In my town, there is no military action, that is why residents from nearby town came over,” he said.
However, Ampatuan fears of water and sanitation problem. “Health concerns will be felt in the next few days,” he said.
Mayor Ampatuan led the distribution of relief goods Sunday to internally displaced persons from Mamasapano and Shariff Saydona.
“They are not my constituents but I am morally obliged to extend a helping hand,” Ampatuan said.
There was no major offensive on Sunday, but the militiary’s 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade remained on heightened alert, securing the Isulan-Cotabato City highway and road networks leading to the towns of Datu Piang, Mamasapano and Shariff Saydona.
“Our operation against the lawless BIFF is continuing,” Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, 6th Infantry Division spokesperson said.
Although no major skirmishes were reported Sunday morning, two MG-520 attack helicopters were seen hovering.
The military’s 6th Infantry Division on Saturday announced that four Indons and an Arab chemist were sighted in the company of the BIFF in the “SPMS box,” an area the Army referred to as adjoining towns of Shariff Aguak, Pagatin (Saudi Ampatuan), Mamasapano and Shariff Saydona. It is the major stronghold of the BIFF.
Meanwhile, people’s organization Suara Bangsamoro cried foul over the alleged indiscriminate firing by government forces that has threatened residents and civilian structures.
“The state forces launched ground and aerial assaults destroying some houses of the residents,” Jerome Aba, Suara Bangsamoro spokesperson, said.
Noria Kamid, a farmer from Sitio Quary, Barangay Maitumaig in Datu Unsay, said government combat helicopters opened fire at their village while residents were still in the area.
“Suara Bangsamoro believes that the encampment of the military in the areas near the civilian community has put in danger the lives of the residents,” Aba said.
“Suara Bangsamoro criticizes the police and military aggression as an overkill, which might escalate the fighting in Maguindanao and make it spill over in neighboring areas,” the group said, adding that the Army has been “deploying several units and composite teams of state forces reportedly in search of (local terrorist Basit) Usman and other terrorists. Suara Bangsamoro fears that government is conditioning the people to accept overkill military actions as a way to catch terrorists,” Aba said.
He added that the recent offensives might be used by the government to cover up the botched operation in Mamasapano that left at least 44 police commandos, 18 Moro rebels and five civilians dead.
Petinglay, however, denied the allegations explaining that troop movements, especially on artillery and air support, were calculated.
“We have not fired artillery or fire support on houses and communities. If we will fire towards the direction of the houses our troops will also be hit because they were positioned there,” Petinglay said.
She explained that it is possible that the houses were hit by a 90mm recoilless rifle fired by the BIFF.
Abu Misri Mama, spokesman of the BIFF, claimed during the first day of the assault, that they hit two armored vehicles using a 90mm recoilless rifle they recovered from the Special Action Force in Mamasapano.
Petinglay confirmed that an explosive hit an armored vehicle, damaging its wheels but the military was still verifying what kind of weapon was used by the rebels.
“The destroyed houses claimed by Suara Bangsamoro could have been caused by the BIFF because they were directing their fire towards the houses where our troops were positioned,” Petinglay said.
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