AFP asked to suspend offensive vs BIFF

John Unson (The Philippine Star) - March 21, 2015 - 12:00am

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – The military was asked yesterday to suspend all operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) for three days from March 25 to 27 to allow the graduation rites of children now cramped in evacuation sites.

Miriam Kawit, schools division superintendent for the second district of Maguindanao, said a three-day ceasefire will enable them to facilitate graduation ceremonies for elementary and high school students from 39 schools that have been shut down since Feb. 28 due to fighting between the military and the BIFF.

Kawit was one of the officials present in Thursday’s provincial peace and order council (PPOC) meeting at Camp Siongco in Datu Odin Sinsuat town.

She said 16,361 children have been displaced from affected schools in 11 of Maguindanao’s 36 towns due to the security problems. 

Maguindanao Gov. Esmael, inter-agency PPOC chairman, said the police, the military and local governments will cooperate in helping organize the graduation programs in designated spots far from flashpoint areas.

“In the meantime, we have to hold graduation rites for our displaced graduating elementary and high school children. We don’t want them to feel neglected and disappointed,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Manolito Orense, Army 6th Division assistant division commander, said they will relay immediately to Armed Forces headquarters the request of Kawit and Mangudadatu.

During the PPOC meeting, representatives of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)’s Emergency Assistance and Response Team had announced  that 123,306 evacuees are now in relief centers in school campuses in the second district of Maguindanao.

The office of Mangudadatu and the ARMM-HEART had separately distributed more than 100 tons of relief supplies to the evacuees in continuing relief operations since last month.

Also present at Thursday’s PPOC meeting were ARMM Regional Local Government Sec. Malang, Sr. Supt. Rodelio Jocson of the Maguindanao police, Vice Gov. Lester Sinsuat and Bobby Katambak, a senior member of the provincial board.

BIFF guerrillas are reportedly regrouping against government troops following 21 encounters in the past two weeks.

The government’s law enforcement efforts had caused the BIFF to break up into smaller bands to avoid detection, the 6th Infantry Division reported during the PPOC last Thursday.

 Mangudadatu said the PPOC can activate a special committee to assess the viability of returning internally displaced residents to barangays that the military had cleared of BIFF control.

“The committee must be composed of officials of affected local government units, the police, the religious communities, the military and barangay captains,” he said.

However, Orense said they cannot immediately return the residents only to be harassed by the BIFF.

“There must be careful planning,” he said.

“The Army and Marine units now present in those barangays cannot just leave without putting up security mechanisms to prevent the return of these armed lawless groups.”

Mangudadatu said one big concern for the provincial government now is how farmers can return to their farms to restart harvesting rice, corn and other crops to sustain their families.

“Life in the evacuation centers is very difficult,” he said.

In Cotabato, Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza appealed for peace in her province and urged her constituents to support the peace process in the effort to finally reach the long-elusive peace in Mindanao.

“I am knocking on your hearts and minds that we stand together as a people to heal the wounds of disunity and those that were brought about by distrust on both sides,” she said.

In her State of the Province Address recently, Mendoza said the Cotabato  provincial government supports the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law now pending in Congress.

“We have helped in making sure that the BBL would be understood by the people not only through information dissemination but also by conducting peace fora in the various areas in the province,” she said.

Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., government ceasefire committee chairman, said they cannot avoid dealing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the assessment process in keeping with existing security protocols.

The 1997 Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities between the government and the MILF does not cover the BIFF.

The ARMM-HEART and the provincial government have distributed more than 100 tons of food supplies to evacuees now cramped in evacuation centers in 11 towns.         – With Edith Regalado

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