DAVAO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – As fighting between soldiers and rebels opposed to a peace deal raged in central Mindanao, a bomb exploded in a bus terminal in the town of Datu Piang, Maguindanao, Tuesday noon, January 28.
Two civilians, an 8-year-old girl and a pregnant woman, were hurt in the incident, the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center said. The victims were immediately brought to the nearest clinic for treatment.
Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that is now caught in intense fighting with soldiers, denied that they planted and detonated the bomb. “We do not use bombs and we do not attack civilians. These civilians are our relatives. We will not hurt them,” Mama said.
The military claimed it had killed 17 BIFF members in 3 days of fighting.
“We were able to neutralize 17 rebels while reports are coming in about more casualties. But this has yet to be confirmed,” said Col Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the military’s 6th Infantry Division.
More than 1,500 troops are involved in the offensive against the BIFF in remote farming areas of central Mindanao, Hermoso said.
The assault was launched on Monday, January 27, two days after the successful end of negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center said at least 1,000 displaced families were reported in the province of Maguindanao. In North Cotabato, about 311 families have also evacuated in the municipality of Pikit, the center added.
The BIFF is a small group of militants opposed to the peace effort, which has carried out many deadly attacks in recent years in a bid to derail the peace process.
“Putting an end to the BIFF armed challenge will be a big help to the autonomous Muslim political entity that will be created by the peace agreement,” Hermoso told AFP.
He said small arms skirmishes were continuing on Tuesday in three farming villages on the edge of a marsh near the town of Datu Piang, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of Manila.
Hermoso said the BIFF had about 120 “hardcore” members who were backed up by scores of relatives and members of other armed groups opposed to the peace talks.
He said the soldiers were carrying out “law enforcement operations” to capture 25 of the militants, who had been charged with a string of criminal cases, including kidnapping, murder and extortion of civilians.
The MILF has been leading a rebellion since the 1970s aimed at winning independence or autonomy for the country’s Muslim minority in the southern region of Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland.
But as the group sought a peace accord with the government, the BIFF broke away with its leader accusing the main Muslim rebel group of betraying Muslims’ quest for independence.
After 18 years of negotiations, the MILF and the government agreed on Saturday, January 25, to the final parts of a planned peace accord aimed at creating a Muslim autonomous region.
The accord is expected to be formally signed before the end of March.
President Benigno Aquino III hopes to fully implement the peace plan before he steps down in the middle of 2016, but there are many legal, political and military obstacles that still need to be overcome.
One of those is the opposition of small splinter groups, such as the BIFF.
In 2008, it launched an attack on mainly Christian towns in the south, leading to the deaths of more than 400 people and displacing 750,000 others.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the local government unit (LGU) of Pikit, North Cotabato are working hand in hand to assist the families displaced by the on-going armed conflict between government forces and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which started over the weekend.
Evacuation centers in Pikit
The fightings, which started over the weekend, has displaced families that are now taking shelter in 10 evacuation centers in Pikit, North Cotabato, and another one in Datu Piang, Maguindanao.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development said the evacuation centers in Pikit are serving 796 families or 3,980 persons, while the one in Datu Piang is housing 45 families or 225 persons.
Others – 913 families or 4,565 persons – have sought temporary shelter at their friends’ or relatives’ houses.
The DSWD said it has P1 million in standby funds, 717 family food packs, and other non-food items to augment the resources of the affected local government units. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com