AFP raids BIFF lairs
Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - January 28, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The military launched yesterday a calibrated “police action” against the Muslim rebel splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), pounding guerrilla positions with cannon and mortar as troops continued their advance in Maguindanao.

The fighting came after the government and the main rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed in Kuala Lumpur the final portions of a peace accord that would give Muslims a large degree of autonomy in Mindanao.

Fighting continued between government troops and BIFF bandits in Barangay Basikil, Shariff Saydona Mustafa in Maguindanao, where two rebels have been confirmed dead while the military is still verifying reports that 15 other guerrillas were killed.

The bodies of the two fatalities were recovered in Barangay Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha yesterday morning.

Soldiers, backed by artillery, attacked BIFF guerrillas that sent hundreds of civilians fleeing, the military said.

The Army’s 602nd, 601st and 2nd Mechanized Brigades declined to provide details on the operations to avoid compromising advancing troops.

The operations against the BIFF involve the Army’s 40th and 7th Infantry Battalions, both component units of the 602nd Infantry Brigade.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the MILF, the 12,000-strong rebel organization that wrapped up peace talks with the government, was helping the military.

“The MILF are part of the law enforcement operations. They are just securing their communities so those (BIFF fighters) cannot enter. They are also angry at the BIFF,” he told AFP.

MILF military spokesman Von al-Haq confirmed that the military had coordinated with the MILF before the attack.

“The BIFF cannot enter (our territories). We have a line where we have repositioned (personnel). If they run there, they cannot enter unless they are surrendering,” he told AFP.

Hermoso said they are still verifying reports that the BIFF suffered casualties during the clash.

“But definitely, on the side of the military and police, there is none,” he said.

The MILF has been leading a rebellion in the southern Philippines since the 1970s aimed at winning independence or autonomy for the country’s Muslim minority in Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland.

Local officials and members of the municipal peace and order councils in Pikit, North Cotabato and in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, said the bombardment started Sunday midnight and forced hundreds of villagers to evacuate to safer areas.

Barangay leaders in Datu Piang said exchanges of gunfire and sporadic explosions were heard in several barangays, causing panic among villagers.

Yesterday’s firefight was the continuation of last Sunday’s skirmishes between government troops and the BIFF rebels in Sultan-sa-Barongis in Maguindanao.

Former rebel commander Ameril Umbra Kato formed in 2011 the BIFF, a breakaway group of the MILF.

Kato’s group had vowed to sabotage the peace process and to continue fighting for Bangsamoro independence.

The military said the BIFF had launched various atrocities in the past, including attacks on remote villages in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and North Cotabato.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office chief, said fighting broke out when Army troops encountered an undetermined number of BIFF rebels at about 7 a.m.

“Fighting is still ongoing as of this time and we don’t have any casualty report yet,” Zagala said as he gave assurance that government security forces are on top of the situation in the entire Mindanao.

Zagala said top officials are monitoring the ongoing operations against the BIFF.

He said the current operations were part of the ongoing police pursuit of BIFF members and other criminals in the area and not related to the peace agreement with the MILF.

Zagala noted that law enforcement operations against the BIFF were being conducted even before the signing of the deal.

“The encounter was part of our support to law enforcement and the Philippine National Police was serving warrants of arrests to lawless elements, particularly the BIFF,” he said.

Hermoso said the latest encounter has no bearing on the signing of the normalization annex of the peace accord with the MILF.

“We, along with the police, are continuously running after them (BIFF) to serve the warrant of arrest and to bring to justice those who perpetrated crimes in the areas of Maguindanao and Cotabato,” he added.

He told reporters that BIFF bandits detonated last Friday an improvised explosive device along a road in Barangay Ulandang in Midsayap, North Cotabato.

Military operations were later launched to arrest local bandits and criminals wanted for various offenses.

The government and the MILF, under the 1997 Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities, have agreed to cooperate in the interdiction of criminals and terrorists. With Alexis Romero, John Unson,

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