MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Members of a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacked 11 towns in Maguindanao Sunday evening, battling Army troops until Monday morning, August 6.
A civilian died in crossfire, while the Army said the bodies of two renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) had been recovered hours after the attacks.
Reports from the Army said roads from the towns of Guindulungan, Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi-Ampatuan, and Shariff Aguak, to the main Maguindanao highway were closed to traffic on Monday, following a series of attacks by members of the BIFF, which was formed by renegade ex-MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato.
The Agence France-Press reported that some of the rebels used chainsaws in the attack.
At least one soldier was wounded as sporadic fighting raged into daybreak, said provincial police chief Senior Supt Marcelo Pintac. The rebels had cut down electrical relay posts before dawn, plunging several towns into darkness.
BIFF spokesman Abumisry Mama confirmed the attacks, saying these were in retaliation for the death of one BIFF member and attacks against their Muslim brothers in Basilan.
The Army troops are under the command of Col Mayoralgo dela Cruz, commanding officer of the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade.
Col Prudencio Asto, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division, told reporters that the attacks at around 11:30 Sunday evening targeted patrol bases and detachments of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade along the perimeter of the Camp Omar Complex particularly in Barangay Cabengi, in the town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Barangay Bagan in Guindulongan, and the barangays of Meta and Maitumaig in the town of Datu Unsay.
The fighting raised fears it could lead to large displacements of villagers, and forced schools to suspend classes for the day, Asto added.
“We are on defensive posture now and we will take care of the communities and the people,” he said, adding that commuters were also advised to avoid passing along highways where fighting could spill over.
The attacks came before the government and the MILF resume peace talks in Kuala Lumpur this week.
“This act of aggression of the BIFF is meant to derail the peace process between the government and the MILF. We assure the public that these incidents will not affect the substantial gains that we have carefully and persistently built with our counterparts, foremost of which is the ceasfire mechanism that continues to hold on the ground and kept the peace for our communities,” said Teresita Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process.
Deles said the government remains “firm in our resolve to continue engaging the MILF” in the negotiations until both sides reach an agreement.
The BIFF is headed by Ameril Umra Kato, a Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla who splintered from the 12,000-strong MILF, which had entered into peace talks with the Aquino government.
Umra Kato had boasted of having about 5,000 armed fighters, though military officials believe he only has a few hundred under his command.
Umra Kato is known to be a Muslim hardliner and he has accused his former comrades of betraying the rebellion’s ultimate goal of an independent Islamic state in the troubled south.
The government has said it hopes to sign a peace deal with the MILF by the end of the year, but had asked the MILF leadership to help contain Umbrakato’s forces.
The Muslim insurgency began in the early 1970s and the fighting has killed some 150,000 people as well as plunged large parts of the south into deep poverty.
Von Al-Haq, spokesman of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces of the MILF, gave assurances this will not stall the talks between the government and the MILF.
“I believe this is very clear that the MILF is not involved. Therefore, there is nothing to be worried about because there are no violations of any peace provision,” Al-Haq said. – with reports from Ferdie Cabrera in Cotabato City, Karlos Manlupig in Davao City and AFP/Rappler.com