Close to 2,000 families displaced in N Cotabato

(5th UPDATE) Initial military reports show rebels are holding teachers and farmers hostage, but the BIFF denies this

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (5th UPDATE) – At least 1,800 families fled their villages in Midsayap, North Cotabato, while 15 civilians remain trapped Monday afternoon, September 23, following gun battles between government troops and members of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

According to a 2 pm update from the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC), the following number of families have evacuated from their respective villages: Barangay Tugal – 118 families; Barangay Nabalawag – 605 families; Barangay Palungoguen – 188 families; Malingao- 505 families; and Barangay Rangaban- 395 families.

The BIFF attacked Barangays Malingao, Mirasol and Polongoguen in Midsayap early morning Monday, triggering a firefight that extended to other villages.

At least one member of government security forces was reported killed while another one was wounded, according to Col Dickson Hermoso of the 6th infantry division in a text message at 3 pm. Hermoso said civilians also saw 4 BIFF members killed.

Hermoso said the BIFF abducted 4 teachers and 11 farmers, but the BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama denied this.

Mama earlier claimed responsibility for the attack, saying he had already warned the government and the residents about their plan to launch offensives in the area.

Capt Tony Bulao of the 6th infantry division said the BIFF troops attacked the villages at 7 am, initially holding as hostages 3 school teachers at the Malingao Elementary School.

The renegade troops confiscated their personal belongings such as cell phones, Bulao added. They were led by a certain Commander DM and Commander Abas Kudanding, according to Bulao.

Mama denied they were holding hostages. “Hindi ito mga hostage. Iniligtas namin at pinatabi sila baka matamaan sila ng bala ng mga sundalo,” Mama said. (They are not our hostages. We secured them to avoid putting them in the line of fire.)

The local police in North Cotabato also said there was no hostage taking, clarifying that the civilians were merely trapped in the encounter.

The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center also said the teachers and students were “reportedly trapped in the school.”

North Cotabato Gov Emmylou Talino-Mendoza said the villages affected by the ongoing gun battle are Pulungugen, Maligao and Tugal.

Residents have already evacuated while classes have been suspended.

“We are on full alert. Our priority now is our evacuess. DepEd has canceled classes in some areas in Midsayap,” Mendoza said. The governor said she is sending some representatives to talk to BIFF to allow safe passage for the civilians.

Led by former 105th Base Commander Ameril Umbra Kato, the BIFF splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after serious disagreements with the conduct of the peace negotiations.

The BIFF is demanding for a separate Islamic state. –

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