Dozens feared dead in Mindanao clashes

PNP special forces engage Muslim rebels in gun battle

Several dozens of  people, most of them government troops, were feared killed in a gun battle that erupted between security forces and some 300 Muslim rebels in Maguindanao on Sunday.

Military sources said 37 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force who were out to  arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, encountered  Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, around 5 am in Pidsandawan village in Masasapano, Maguindanao.

Reports reaching the office of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Research headed by former police intelligence director Rodolfo Mendoza, said  at least two police officers were also killed in the fighting that was still raging at press time.

Police and military officials refused to provide information while the fighting was going on, but military field reports indicated that the government side had suffered major casualties.

Several BIFF rebels were also reported killed in the clash but no official figures were given except for two fatalities who were identified through their aliases Sala and Kansa, all belonging to the group of Commander Resbak of the BIFF’s 105th Brigade.

Three high-powered firearms were also reportedly taken by Commander Visayas from the slain PNP-SAF contingent at the battle site.

The fighting started after the PNP-SAF contingent swooped down on the supposed hideout of Marwan and subsequently  attacked it, but they met stiff resistance from some 300 heavily armed BIFF fighters.

It was reported that elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from the 118th base command and 105th base command supported the fight against the security forces.

Eleven SAF policemen were pinned down and dozen others were wounded in the initial fighting, prompting them to call for reinforcement.

But the members of the Army’s 45th Infantry Battalion that reinforced the PNP-SAF and the soldiers were held back by the BIFF fighters.

There were no reports on what happened to Malaysian terrorist Marwan who was with the BIFF rebels when the security forces attacked them.

“Ceasefire monitors are now on the ground to separate the forces and remove the casualties,” regional military spokesman captain Joan Petinglay said by telephone.

Mohagher Iqbal, the lead MILF negotiator in a landmark peace deal signed in March last year, also confirmed the incident, but neither side would say how many fighters were wounded or killed, or to whom they belonged.

The 10,000-member MILF had agreed to end decades of rebellion in the mainly Catholic nation in exchange for a proposed law now being debated in parliament that would give the minority Muslims self-rule in several southern provinces.

“This is the first encounter between the MILF and [government forces] this year. Hopefully, this will be the last,” Iqbal said by telephone.

He said the police had entered an MILF-influenced area without notifying the group first, while searching for members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which disagrees with the peace talks and broke away from the MILF in 2008.

“They [police] ran into an MILF force. The ceasefire monitors are now in the area,” Iqbal said.

“We heard some people were killed, but I believe this will not affect the peace process,” he added.

Both Iqbal and Petinglay said a joint government-MILF ceasefire committee and a small international monitoring team of soldiers and police from Malaysia and other countries had arrived in the area by the afternoon to “disengage” the two groups.

The clash in Mamasapano, about 900 kilometres south of Manila, was only the second since two soldiers and 18 Muslim gunmen were killed in a clash on the southern island of Basilan in April 2014.

Such incidents once broke out with much greater frequency prior to the signing of the treaty, during a rebellion that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

After the April fighting, the government accused the MILF of helping Islamic extremists under attack from security forces. The group acknowledged four of its members were killed.

Since the peace deal was struck, government forces have been going after the BIFF, a group of several hundred Muslim gunmen who last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. With AFP

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