MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippine military announced the end of its offensive against a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) meant to remove spoilers in the peace process.
Lt Col Ramon Zagala, chief of the public affairs office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said in a statement on Sunday, February 2, that it is officially ending its operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
But Zagala also told reporters the military would continue to hunt down remaining splinter groups.
“They have split into smaller groups and further operations must be done to follow up,” he told reporters.
These operations will be “smaller in scale,” he said, adding that they would also be held in coordination with the main Muslim rebel group, the MILF.
The announcement comes a day after the military raised the Philippine flag in the BIFF’s main base in Barangay (village) Ganta, Shariff Saydona Mustapha in Maguindanao. The AFP seized the camp on Friday.
Known as Operation Darkhorse, the weeklong offensive led to the death of 52 BIFF members, and wounded another 49. The AFP said it captured 4 BIFF camps, and an improvised explosive device (IED) factory also in Barangay Ganta where IEDs used in bombings in Central Mindanao were produced.
A soldier was killed and 20 others wounded.
Eight civilians were caught in the crossfire and were wounded, including a reporter and a cameraman from TV5.
The heavy fighting left 9,465 families displaced, consisting of 35,334 individuals from the towns of Sharif Saydona, Rajah Buayan and Datu Piang of Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato.
The AFP launched the offensive after the Philippine government signed the final annex that forms part of its peace agreement with the MILF last week. The agreement aims to give the MILF wider autonomy through the creation of the Bangsamoro political entity, and to put an end to 4 decades of fighting in Mindanao.
Led by commander Ameril Umra Kato, the BIFF splintered from the MILF and has rejected the peace talks with the government.
‘Shows MILF commitment’
Zagala said the AFP successfully restricted the movements of the BIFF. “The AFP’s focused military operations prevented the escalation of violence and were able to effectively limit their capability to sabotage or derail the on-going GPH-MILF Peace Process.”
The end of the military offensive came after the Joint Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) of the government and the MILF granted the AFP’s request for a 3-day extension.
“It showed the commitment of the MILF to rid its communities of the BIFF so that the peace process of the Bangsamoro would be unhampered. The AHJAG is a joint effort of the government and the MILF to stop lawless elements taking refuge in MILF communities,” said Zagala.
The military said it supported police efforts to serve arrest warrants for BIFF members involved in crimes like kidnap for ransom and murder.
Rehabilitation is challenge
The military said it is now safe for the displaced civilians to return home.
“Some communities have sustained heavy collateral damage due to the fighting and will have to be rehabilitated. This will be the challenge that the AHJAG and the government must now face,” Zagala said.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center has said that the fighting hurt the civilians’ livelihood, threatened their safety and took a toll on them psychologically.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao government said it has enough funds to provide for the needs of the evacuees.
‘Child soldiers no place in civilized society’
The AFP again condemned the BIFF’s alleged use of child soldiers. The military said it recovered photos in a BIFF camp showing the rebel group used child soldiers.
The Army’s 6th Infantry Division said at least 3 child rebel soldiers aged 15 to 16 were killed in the clashes in Maguindanao.
“The use of child soldiers to perpetuate violence has no place in a civilized society. Children are a zone of peace and by putting them in the forefront of armed conflict their rights are violated,” Zagala said.
BIFF Spokesman Abu Misry Mama though has denied that the BIFF used child soldiers, accusing the military of planting or staging evidence against them.
“Those kids who died were not used as soldiers. They were civilians, killed by (military) airstrikes or by their 105 mm howitzers,” he said. – with reports from Agence-France Presse/Rappler.com
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