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Military captures BIFF strongholds, extends operations

MANILA, Philippines (Update) – The Philippine military said it has captured strongholds of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao but it is extending its offensive against the rebels to run after remaining members. 

"We have captured their strongholds in barangay Ganta and barangay Bakat in Shariff Saydona Mustapha. We have captured their training facility in Bakat and more importantly their headquarters and bomb-making facility in Ganta," Colonel Dickson Hermoso, spokesperson of the Army's Maguindanao-based 6th Infantry Division, told Rappler in a phone interview. 

Intense firefight occurred Wednesday night, January 29, in Ganta, where the BIFF manufacture improvised explosive devices (IEDS). The encounter there killed more BIFF members and wounded more soldiers. 

The death toll has risen to 41 as of Thursday morning, January 30. The military said 40 BIFF members and one soldier were killed. A total of 25 soldiers and rebels were also wounded.

Extended

The military operation was supposed to end Wednesday, January 29, but was extended for another 72 hours, or until Saturday, February 1.

Hermoso said the BIFF has splintered into "small groups" but the marshy terrain is proving to be a challenge, he said.

"We requested for an extension. It was okayed by the Government-MILF Ad hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). We were granted an extension of 72 hours," he said. 

Fighting erupted in Maguindanao between soldiers and the breakaway unit of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Sunday, January 26, hours after the government and the MILF signed the "Annex on Normalization" in Kuala Lumpur, which would pave the way for a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

The military offensive has the backing of the MILF. "The ongoing military operations are geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process," said government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer.

Ferrer said the ceasefire mechanisms of the government and the MILF ensured civilian safety and relief provisions are on standby for those have been displaced.

The site of the clashes are considered MILF territories. Formerly with the MILF, the BIFF members are also residents there. Hermoso said the MILF wants to get rid of the BIFF there because the peace deal is "very imminent" and their presence poses problems to the new political entity. 

Hermoso said they want to "degrade" the BIFF into a "mere police matter."

Negotiation?

The offensive against the BIFF is extended despite the calls of several groups, and even of the BIFF fighters, for a negotiation. (READ: BIFF open to talks)

The BIFF said they will wait for the government to initiate talks for either a temporary ceasefire or a full negotiation for the "Bangsamoro Islamic State" which they are demanding.

Hermoso scoffed at the BIFF's call. "They're now willing to negotiate because we got them. We think they should first answer to the crimes they've committed. They've beheaded people in Midsayap, they engaged in extortion activities," Hermoso said. 

BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama said they've captured and torched an armored personnel carrier (APC) after "confiscating" the .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the vehicle. 

"We already torched it. We cannot use it because we do not have roads here," Mama said. 

Thousands of families continue to stay in various evacuation sites while classes are affected as the sporadic exchanges of gunfire, air assaults, and artillery shelling continue. 

BIFF denies death toll

The BIFF denied the military death toll. Mama said only 7 BIFF members were wounded. 

Hermoso said they have identified 12 of the 40 BIFF casualties. They've included in their count freshly dug graves, which, he said, they did not touch anymore fearing they would violate cultural sensitivities. 

Hermoso claimed that among those killed in the firefights were arm-toting child warriors as young as 15 years old wearing BIFF uniforms. He said they are coordinating with barangay officials to get their identities. – Rappler.com