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‘Bigger war’ looms

Military attacks on BIFF spread to MNLF camps

The continuing clashes between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters which the military said had so far killed 17 BIFF rebels and wounded two government troopers and a civilian, could escalate into a ‘bigger’ war also involving the Nur Misuari-faction of the Moro National Liberation Front.

MNLF Commander Bensalih Sharifah claimed on Tuesday that government troops launched attacks on its camps in Bgy. Bakat in Datu Piang, the largest MNLF encampment in Maguindanao.

Dangerous road artery. The second mechanized
Infantry Brigade watches the national road
between Datu Saudi and Datu Piang in
Maguindanao following the exchange of gunfire
and sporadic explosions in several areas there
starting on Sunday. Omar Mangorsi
Sharifah warned that should the military persist on attacking their camps, a full-blown war could ensue.

MNLF Spokesman Absalom Cerveza confirmed Sharifah’s claim, adding that the military also attacked an MNLF territory in Saydona Mustapha in Maguindanao, which he said resulted in fierce clashes between MNLF fighters and army troopers.

“They (military) attacked MNLF camps in Saydona Mustapha and Brgy. Bakat in Datu Piang forcing MNLF fighters to engage the military in intense fighting but they withdrew,” Cerveza said.

“Kung hindi maghinto di geyera na,” Cerveza said, adding that MNLF forces were alerted of possible attacks from government forces. “But as of now they are in

the defensive mode,” he said.

He said that fighting could escalate into a bigger war because there are other groups whose camps are situated within the perimeter where the skirmishes between the BIFF and the government were taking place.

The military made no mention of the attacks on MNLF camps, as Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, only reported that fresh fighting occurred at 5 a.m. in Barangay Bakat as government troops pursued fleeing BIFF forces.

Hermoso also insisted that their operations had nothing to do with the signing of the fourth annex of the framework agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which was signed on Saturday in Malaysia.

“It was just a coincidence. It has no bearing. If you remember, the BIFF launched an attack last September in Midsayap [in North Cotabato] where 12 civilians were killed, one of whom was beheaded,” he said.

But Hermoso admitted that ending BIFF’s armed challenge will help boost the creation of a new Bangsamoro entity in Muslim Mindanao.

“Putting an end to the BIFF armed challenge will be a big help to the autonomous Muslim political entity that will be created by the peace agreement,” he said, describing the military’s attacks on the BIFF as ‘pro-active.’

This is actually in compliance with the new policy adopted by the Palace, which it said is being done to nip in the bud the growing threat of the BIFF before it styles itself as another group that the state needs to negotiate peace with.

“We are being proactive now, so the situation does not deteriorate,” Presidential Communications Office Secretary Sonny Coloma said, recalling that the MILF itself was a splinter group from the MNLF before it became a legitimate group.

“The AFP and the PNP are now conducting joint law enforcement operations to serve arrest warrants against members of the BIFF. According to the Philippine Army, the MILF are part of the operations to secure their communities and prevent entry of BIFF elements,” Coloma said.

“All of these actions are being taken in order to protect the gains from the peace process, and we are determined to protect these gains,” the Palace official said.

Coloma added that the AFP and the PNP are now conducting joint law enforcement operations to serve arrest warrants against members of the BIFF and said that the MILF are part of the operations “to secure their communities and prevent entry of BIFF elements.”

As this developed, Abu Misry Mama, BIFF spokesperson, denied the AFP claim that 17 BIFF were killed in the clashes, saying that only one BIFF member was wounded.

But Hermoso said the reports on the deaths came from the troops and barangay officials in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Datu Piang, Sultan sa Barongis and Datu Salibo in Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato.

He added that the Army has yet to receive more detailed reports on the casualties.

Hermosa added that small arms skirmishes were continuing on Tuesday in three farming villages on the edge of a marsh near the town of Datu Piang, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of Manila.

Hermoso said the BIFF had about 120 “hardcore” members who were backed up by scores of relatives and members of other armed groups opposed to the peace talks.

The military said the clashes has spread into the outskirts of the municipalities of Shariff Aguak, Sultan sa Barongis and Ski Pendatun, all in Maguindanao, forcing some 10,000 residents to flee their homes.

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the fighting is now contained in Maguindanao, particularly in Shariff Aguak, Saydona Mustapha.

He added that the military is in close coordination with the police to prevent the fighting from spreading into other areas.

“Our objective really is to contain the BIFF forces and all other auxiliary threat groups. There is already a plan…we cannot remove the possibility of a spillover, that’s why we are preventing that,” he said.

Cerveza, however, claimed that disgruntled MILF members who were against the ‘normalization’ annex, had defected to the BIFF and joined the fighting in Datu Piang, Maguindanao and Pikit, North Cotabato.

Cerveza said more MILF forces would soon defect to either the MILF or the BIFF. With Joyce Pangco Pañares, Florante Solmerin and AFP

 

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