COTABATO CITY, Philippines – At least 6 residents, including a 2-year-old, were hurt as government shells allegedly fell in their community during an assault in a major camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao on Saturday, July 6.
Lying at the surgery ward of the Cotabato Regional Hospital and Medical Center, Barangay Kagawad Omar Kalimbang, who sustained a shrapnel wound in his right chest, writhed in pain as he tried to narrate the incident.
Kalimbang said the firefight in Barangay Ganta, Shariff Saydona Mustapha started around 2 pm Saturday.
“We immediately evacuated and sought shelter at the Ganta Elementary School,” he said.
Residents said they knew it was heavy fighting as they heard rapid firing, explosions and mortar shelling.
The fighting raged for hours and died down at 4 pm.
The residents waited two hours before going back to their homes to secure their possessions.
“After the fighting stopped, we went out of the school to get our things from our homes and to secure our livestock. But as we are walking through our community, cannon shells rapidly fell from the sky,” Kalimbang narrated.
Kalimbang said he could not count how many shells hit their community.
“We saw and heard successive explosions. I got hit by a shell, which exploded near me.”
The casualties were identified as Fatima Balilid and her 2-year-old daughter, Nasser Kamid; Alon Alimundo; Donna Alimundo; and Kalimbang.
Residents said the shelling was part of a clearing operation to recover military vehicles stuck in the area.
Major General Romeo Gapuz, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, said recent “atrocities and threats” perpetrated by the rebel group prompted the military, Philippine National Police, and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group of the government, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to launch the assault.
Gapuz said the BIFF is “hell-bent on derailing the peace process” between the MILF and the government.
Col Dickson Hermoso, 6th ID spokesperson, said the first encounter between forces from the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion and Moro rebels transpired in Sitio Dam, Barangay Damablas, Datu Piang town at around 10:40 am.
It was followed by a clash between the rebel group and elements of the 45th Infantry Brigade in Barangay Dasawao, Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, 20 minutes later.
Another encounter transpired 10 minutes after this in Sitio Mapagkaya, Barangay Paidu Polangi, in Pikit, North Cotabato.
BIFF members harassed the soldiers in Pikit to divert the attention of the military.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the BIFF, claimed that the Moro rebels damaged 3 government tanks and sank a speedboat.
He also said they were able to confiscate one M60 machine gun from government forces.
Hermoso brushed off the claims, saying these were propaganda.
For Barangay Kagawad Rolly Kamid, the shelling was definitely perpetrated by the military because only government forces have 105mm artillery cannons.
“What is more raging is that the shells dropped 30 meters from the evacuation centers,” Kamid said.
He added that it was impossible for government forces to not know that the shells were hitting civilian areas.
“We thought we were safe at the designated evacuation centers,” Kamid said.
“We took the initiative to bring our relatives and neighbors to Cotabato City. We took pumpboats and transported them to the nearest health center which has an ambulance. We arrived at the hospital at around 10 in the evening,” Kamid narrated.
“Right now it is still very painful for us. It will be not easy for us to forgive the soldiers,” he added.
Hermoso said they are still verifying the reports about civilian casualties caused by government forces.
However, the BIFF accused the military of purposely targeting the civilians to pressure the rebel group to surrender.
“The soldiers knew that civilians are in the area. They did it on purpose,” Mama said.
Bai Ali Indayla, spokesperson of Kawagib Moro Human Rights, said the military consistently attacked Moro areas during the start of Ramadan in the past few years.
“This is a total disrespect to the Bangsamoro people. Civilian communities are suffering from the combat heavy mentality of the military. We are condemning these atrocities perpetrated by the government,” Indayla said.
Indayla added that the 6th Infantry Division must be immediately investigated and that those who are responsible must be punished.
Presently, more then 100 families are taking temporary shelter in schools, mosques and day care centers.
Led by former 105th Base commander Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF broke away from the MILF after serious disagreements on the conduct of the peace talks. – Rappler.com