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NORTH COTABATO CLASHES

War on terrorists rages, displaces hundreds

05:15 AM December 21, 2017

KIDAPAWAN CITY—Islamic State (IS) followers were continuing their quest for IS to take root in Mindanao, leading to sporadic clashes with government forces that on Tuesday displaced at least 1,000 residents in a North Cotabato village.

The displaced residents of Tonganon village in Carmen, North Cotabato, sought shelter in Lawili, another village in the same town, when a group of IS followers led by Esmael Abdulmalik, also known as Abu Toraife, fled to Tonganon from Maguindanao amid military offensives against IS-linked gunmen.

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Maj. Gen. Arnel dela Vega, head of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division (ID), said the displaced residents of Tonganon had been given shelter
in the village center and public schools of Lawili, where they were now being aided by relief workers.

Military target

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Dela Vega said the military was after the group of Toraife, tagged as head of an IS cell in Maguindanao, which tried to hide in Tonganon where it was cornered by soldiers.

The clash in Tonganon wounded three soldiers and a militiaman, and killed five gunmen belonging to Toraife’s group, Dela Vega said.

Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesperson for the 6th ID, said it was still uncertain
if Toraife was among the
IS followers killed by soldiers in Tonganon.

Toraife was a leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who joined the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front (BIFF) after top MILF officials struck a peace deal with the government.

But Toraife also later broke off from the main BIFF group with a few dozen followers to pledge allegiance to IS and wage an armed struggle to establish an Islamic waliyah (province) in Maguindanao.

Bodies not found

The military said Toraife’s group was allied with Abu Sayyaf and Maute, two homegrown terror groups that led the attempt to establish an IS province in Marawi City.

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Dela Vega said the wounded government troops, including a militiaman, were now in a hospital.

But the bodies of the five IS casualties had not been found as these could have been either buried hastily or carried by their comrades, Dela Vega said.

Maguindanao base
He said foreign fighters were also seen with the group of Toraife but villagers could not ascertain their nationalities.

Brig. Gen. Nolly Samarita, head of the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade, said the military launched airstrikes to prevent the Toraife group from attacking civilian communities in North Cotabato in retaliation for military
offensives.

Since February, the military has been battling Toraife’s group, which had been based in Maguindanao where it had launched a series of bombings targeting civilians and soldiers.

Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, head of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), said the military objective was to prevent Toraife’s group from getting near civilian populations.

Members of the group, said Galvez in a statement, “are known for harming civilians to avenge losses they incur in military operations.”

President Duterte had warned against the emergence of more radicalized Moro groups if the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) did not become law.

But he asked MILF, which struck a deal with the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III containing BBL, to be more patient should Congress fail to pass the proposed measure that would replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with a new autonomous government with broader powers.

The emergence of smaller groups of IS followers came after the government declared victory in Marawi, which IS groups tried to control. —EDWIN FERNANDEZ, JULIE ALIPALA AND JEOFFREY MAITEM

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