BIFF putting up united front with other groups

Perseus Echeminada - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The military offensive unleashed in Mindanao has triggered a budding alliance among armed groups left out of the peace talks with the government, an official of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) said yesterday.

MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said the emergence of the Justice for Islamic Movement (JIM) in Central Mindanao is an indication of the realignment of armed groups targeted by an ongoing military offensive.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), though painted as a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that has forged a peace agreement with the government, will now fight side by side with JIM against the military, Fontanilla said.

As part of tradition, every Muslim owns a gun and will defend his community if attacked, he said.

“Only women, children and elderly go to evacuation centers; able-bodied men will join the fight,” he said.

Fontanilla said JIM is among several armed groups operating in Mindanao and the failure of the government to reach out to them drove them to form tactical alliances with other groups and tribal communities that are also a force to reckon with.

The selective peace talks with the MILF, which according to Fontanilla are actually a divide and rule tactic by the government, are now taking their toll with the emergence of a united front in Mindanao.

“A united front is now emerging, BIFF, JIM and other groups will join the fight if the military will continue its offensive,” he said.

Because of strong blood ties, the MILF will not fight against their brothers and relatives, and in a worst-case scenario, they might even join the fray to protect their communities.

Fontanilla, however, said the MNLF would not join the new alliance because it has already renounced armed struggle in attaining their political objective.

The MNLF forged a peace agreement with the government in 1996.

“The MNLF will just be a passive observer but it will also protect their communities if attacked,” Fontanilla warned.

Malacañang said government is ready to confront the JIM as the offensive against the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf continued.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. on Thursday said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was doing its duty to monitor the activities of different armed groups.

He added the military was continuously coordinating with the MILF to check the movements of different armed groups in their strongholds in Mindanao.

The ongoing offensives and operations by the military against the BIFF that are being carried out in areas known to the MILF now also target the JIM.

Coloma said the JIM would pose a challenge to the peace process, the reason solidarity or unity of all stakeholders is important to push it forward.

The military offensives, however, have displaced thousands of civilians in Central Mindanao.

Although tension has waned in some towns where the military and Muslim rebels are locked in a face-off for a week now, evacuees are reluctant to return to the homes they hastily abandoned for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

The provincial board of Maguindanao declared 36 towns under a state of calamity to hasten delivery of relief and rehabilitation services to thousands of displaced villagers in squalid evacuation centers.

Lynette Estandarte, chief budget officer of Maguindanao, said about 90 percent of evacuees affected by the ongoing military operations rely on farming as their main source of income.

“They were forced to leave their farms unattended for fear of an outbreak of hostilities between the BIFF and pursuing military forces,” Estandarte said.

“Tension in some areas has started to deescalate, but the evacuees are reluctant to return home for security reasons,” she added.

The Department of Health (DOH) said they have not recorded any disease outbreaks in the evacuation centers for civilians displaced by the fighting in Maguindanao.

DOH spokesman Lyndon Lee Suy gave assurance that the department has sent teams of experts to look into the health conditions of evacuees.

On the other hand, Department of Education regional director Allan Farnazo appealed to the military to protect the schoolchildren in their operations against the BIFF.

Farnazo also appealed to the BIFF to be sensitive to the rights of the students.

“We urged both the warring parties to avoid the students to be casualties of your wars. Don’t bring your gun battle near the schools,” he said.

Farnazo urged the military to avoid using the schools in Pikit town as operation bases or command centers to avoid being attacked by the BIFF.

They should also consider public schools as “zones of peace,” he added.

Despite security concerns, investments are up in the region, according to officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which includes Maguindanao.

 According to the ARMM regional investment board, two companies based in the island town of Panglima Sugala in Tawi-Tawi – the Tawi-Tawian Petroleum Trading Corp. and Chan C Mining Inc. – registered a total of P863 million worth of new projects in the first quarter of this year.

Tawi-Tawian Petroleum is into importation and distribution of petroleum products while Chan C Mining is engaged in mining and quarrying of nickel ore for export to China.

 ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman said investors’ confidence in the region is still high. – With John Unson, Ramil Bajo, Sheila Crisostomo, Edith Regalado

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