150 Kato fighters swoop down on Midsayap, hold 9 hostages during retreat
A day after President Benigno Aquino III left Zamboanga City feeling confident that the standoff between rebels belonging to the Nur Misuari faction of the Moro National Liberation Front and government forces was nearing its end, a firefight erupted in Midsayap, Cotabato between at least 150 Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and government troops that left three dead and five wounded.
Earlier reports also said the rebels held hostage 15 civilians consisting of 11 farmers and four schoolteachers from Malingao Elementary School, but later released them.
But Capt. Tony Bulao, spokesman of the 602nd Infantry Brigade based in North Cotabato, said there are nine teachers who are still being held by the BIFF, bringing the actual total number of hostages to 24.
Bulao said the BIFF launched simultaneous attacks in barangays Polongoguen, Polomoguen and Milangao at around 7 a.m. on Monday.
They retreated when the soldiers arrived and engaged them in a firefight.
“We have a soldier killed in action and another one wounded. There were two killed and four wounded on the BIFF side” Bulao said.
Bulao said BIFF commanders known only as DM and Abas Kundanding led the attack in Malingao ang Polomoguen while a still unidentified commander led the attack in Polongoguen where the more intense fighting happened.
Bulao said the BIFF rebels were able to escape by disguising themselves as civilians.
But regional army spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso and BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama both said the latest outbreak of violence was not related to the three-week conflict with the Nur-Misuari led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front in Zamboanga City, which is located 273 kilomters (170) miles from Midsayap.
A source, however, said that the attacks were indeed done in sympathy with the beleaguered MNLF fighters, who are down to 30 men still slugging it out with government troopers.
Bulao, meanwhile, said the bandits barged into the school compound at around 8:30 a.m. and held hostage some of the teachers and students and used them as “human shields” from pursuing soldiers and policemen.
Prior to the attacks in the Midsayap barangays, BIFF elements tried to enter Barangay Rangaban but faced resistance from armed Civilian Volunteers Organization that led to a firefight at around 2:20 a.m.
A military statement said the BIFF rebels retreated to barangays Malingao, Mirasol and Polongoguen when they came across the civilians and used them as human shields.
The military said the BIFF first engaged soldiers in a firefight around 8 a.m. in Barangay Tugal. The rebels then splintered to smaller groups, resulting in sporadic fights.
Reached for a comment, BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama denied that they used civilians as human shields.
“Walang hostage. Pero iniligtas nila ‘yung mga sibilyan na na-trap sa bakbakan,” he said in a text message.
The Philippine National Police Public Information Office confirmed Mama’s claim, as it reported that the teachers and some 50 pupils were trapped – not taken hostage – in the firefight between the BIFF and government forces.
The statement quoted Esmael Tamalla, Malingao barangay captain, as saying that the teachers and pupils hid inside their rooms for safety during the firefight.
The BIFF is a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is engaged in peace efforts with the government. The group is led by Ameril Umbra Kato, who had led attacks in Mindanao since 2008 when the Supreme Court thumbed down a memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain between the government and the MILF.
Classes at all levels in Midasayap had been suspended as authorities feared more attacks.
The BIFF is a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) led by hardcore commander Ameril Umbra Kato who was expelled from the organization and formed his own BIFF after he rejected peace negotiations with the government.
While fighting rages in Zamboanga, BIFF elements had joined forces with more or less 150 Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and loyalists of Misuari that tried but failed to seize control of some strategic areas and buildings in Lamitan City in Basilan, a week after the standoff.
Military authorities in Midsayap town said that the three teachers who were earlier released are in the custody of a certain Datu Try, a Brgy Kagawad in Malingao in a safe area in Barangay Palonggoguen.
AFP Spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said the the BIFF rebels, who attacked a military post of the army’s 40th Infantry battalion in Midsayap, took the civilians and used them as human shields from pursuing troops.
The attack, Tutaan said, sparked a running gunbattle that spilled over to a nearby school building.
It was not immediately known what triggered the attack at the military detachment but local officials hinted of land dispute and political issues as the probable reasons behind the incident.
“There are several issues blamed for the attack, some of which are land dispute, political including peace negotiations,” said North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Talino Mendoza in a local radio interview.
The BIFF elements under a certain Commander Abunawas landed by boat and swooped down into Brgy Malingao causing panic among the populace.
Reports said the BIFF group then proceeded to Malingao Elementary School and took 10 teachers and undetermined number of students as shields. With Francisco Tuyay and The AFP