NORTH COTABATO, Philippines – At least 20 members of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were killed in artillery attacks by government security forces in North Cotabato, a military official said Monday, February 23.
Army Colonel Noel Clement, commander of 602nd Brigade, said Monday that the BIFF, a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), buried their comrades as the army was conducting retrieval operations in Kabasalan, a remote village between the border of Pikit and Sultan sa Barongis in Maguindanao.
“Based on our initial estimates and feedbacks from our counterparts in the MILF, around 20 rebels were killed,” said Clement, who led the clearing operations in Kabasalan.
“We saw the graves in Kabasalan as shown to us by the MILF in the area,” he added.
The BIFF burned several houses in the area – 17 in Kabasalan and five in Barongis, Clement said.
“The entire Kabasalan complex that comprises several villages is already safe, but as far as civilians returning homes, we will declare that probably in the next few days because we will ensure that no improvised bombs are left behind by the rebels in the outskirts,” Clement said.
The Army official said soldiers used three bomb-sniffing dogs for the operations.
Government security forces launched ground and artillery offensives on Saturday, February 21 against the BIFF. The assault drove the rebel group away from Barangays Kabasalan, Buliok and Barongis in the town of Pikit.
The skirmishes between the BIFF and the MILF in Pikit town and in nearby Pagalungan in Maguindanao reportedly started in February 13 over a land dispute between BIFF commander Gani Saligan and Jack Abas, MILF eastern command chief. (READ: MILF brigade commander killed in clash vs BIFF)
Clement said BIFF rebels withdrew towards the marshy areas of Sultan sa Barogis by crossing the river in Kabasalan.
“They splintered into small groups. It will take time for them to regroup because they suffered heavy casualties,” he said.
Abu Misri Mama, BIFF spokesman, however, disputed the army count. He said they only suffered four fatalities and eight wounded.
The BIFF, the armed wing of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), broke away from the MILF in 2011. – Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler.com