Military declares end of offensive vs BIFF
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The military yesterday officially terminated its operations against the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), saying the offensives have significantly reduced the capability of the rebels to launch attacks in central Mindanao.

However, there are no indications that BIFF leader Ameril Umbra Kato was killed or captured during the weeklong operation.

The military also admitted that the success of the campaign, dubbed “Operation Darkhorse,” was not an assurance the BIFF has been totally defeated.

The offensive against the BIFF started last Monday and was supposed to end after two days. Security forces, however, requested for a three-day extension that ended last Saturday to allow them to enter more BIFF lairs.

“The military officially terminates ‘Operation Darkhorse’ as of Feb. 2, 2014 after its request for a three-day (72-hour) extension was granted by the Joint Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),” Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

The AHJAG is tasked to isolate and neutralize criminal groups in Mindanao.

Zagala said the three-day extension had allowed the military to prevent the spillover of violence and to press further into areas where the BIFF was entrenched.

“The three-day extension was crucial in applying further pressure against the BIFF, contributing to their neutralization in the areas of Cotabato and Maguindanao,” he said.

Zagala said “Operation Darkhorse” allowed the seizure of four BIFF camps and a makeshift explosives factory in Barangay Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Maguindanao.

He said the improvised explosive devices produced in the factory were used to stage bombings in Central Mindanao.

Government troops on Saturday hoisted the Philippine flag at the biggest enclave of the BIFF in Shariff Saidona town, signaling the success of the weeklong military offensives against the outlawed group.

Troops from the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade, the 1st Mechanized Brigade, and 6th Infantry Division hoisted the Philippine flag at the BIFF enclave in Barangay Ganta.

The seven-hectare camp, which housed more than 500 bandits led by Ustadz Karialan, fell at dusk on Friday, after five days of air, artillery and ground offensives.

The assault, however, resulted in 10 injured, including two journalists who came along with the troops to cover the event.

Six soldiers and two unidentified civilians were also wounded in the blast.

Troops also foiled another bombing attempt of the BIFF on a highway in Guindulungan town in Maguindanao yesterday.

Farmers at the roadside found an improvised explosive device, officials said.

“It was fortunate that people in Barangay Macasampen (in Guindulungan) discovered the improvised explosive device and reported what they found to an Army detachment nearby,” said Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.

A total of 52 rebels and one soldier were killed during the weeklong assault.

Some 49 rebels and 20 soldiers were wounded in the sporadic clashes. Three of the slain BIFF rebels were minors aged 15 to 16 years old. Eight civilians were wounded and were immediately brought to local health facilities.

Where is Kato?

The weeklong military operations seem to have failed to capture Kato, the disgraced MILF commander who founded the BIFF to fight for the creation of an independent Islamic state.

“There are no reports yet,” Zagala told The STAR when asked whether Kato was among the BIFF members who were captured.

“The police, supported by the military, would still serve the warrants of arrest on BIFF personalities, including its commander Ameril Umbra Kato,” he added.

Officials are unsure as to whether they have seen the last of the BIFF, widely regarded as spoilers of the peace talks between the government and the MILF.

“We cannot categorically say that because of the operation, we have eliminated all of them,” Zagala said.

“But we have reduced their influence. The seizure of their camps was very important. They no longer have safe havens and the ability to conduct trainings,” he added.

Zagala said the military would continue to work closely with the police to prevent the BIFF from regrouping and launching new attacks.

Kato has criticized the MILF leadership for its alleged revisionist policy in abandoning its original stance of independence.

In 2008, Kato and his troops attacked civilians in various parts of Mindanao after the Supreme Court nullified the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government and the MILF. Authorities have offered a P10-million bounty for his arrest.

Kato reportedly suffered a mild stroke in 2011 while moving constantly to evade arrest in the remote areas sprawling Guindulungan, Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay towns in Maguindanao.

Reports about Kato’s supposed death also surfaced that year but the BIFF dismissed them as misinformation intended to mislead the public.

Displaced

Zagala said the heavy fighting between government troops and BIFF rebels caused the evacuation of 9,465 families or 35,334 individuals from the towns of Shariff Saidona, Rajah Buayan, Datu Piang all of Maguindanao and Pikit in North Cotabato

“Having successfully neutralized the BIFF threat in these areas, it is now safe for these civilians displaced by the fighting to return to their homes and go on with their daily lives,” he said.

Zagala said some communities have to be rehabilitated after sustaining heavy collateral damage.

“Having minimized if not completely eliminated the threat of the BIFF in these communities, we foresee their speedy reconstruction which will lead us to the normalization of these affected areas and eventually achieving lasting peace,” he said.

Malacañang condemned the BIFF for using child combatants against government troops.

Sen. Nancy Binay also condemned the BIFF for using child warriors.

“To use children as combatants is unacceptable and clearly a gross violation of Philippine and international humanitarian laws,” Binay said in a statement.

“The BIFF is robbing these children not only of their rights but their future as well,” she added. –John Unson, Christina Mendez

AMERIL UMBRA KATO BARANGAY GANTA BIFF GUINDULUNGAN INFANTRY DIVISION KATO MAGUINDANAO MILITARY OPERATION DARKHORSE ZAGALA
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