AFP to focus on splinter groups after ending all-out offensive vs BIFF
Alexis Romero ( - March 29, 2015 - 10:05pm

MANILA, Philippines - The military ended on Monday its “all-out offensive” against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) without capturing wanted Filipino terrorist and bomb expert Basit Usman.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr. said soldiers have depleted the capabilities of the group, which has staged bombings in Central Mindanao to derail the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“We have achieved our objectives including the neutralization of more than fifty percent of their ranks, the capture of their bomb factories, and the seizure of their enclaves or safe havens in different Maguindanao localities,” he told reporters in Villamor Airbase.

Catapang claimed 151 BIFF members were killed, 64 were wounded and 12 were captured since the start of the law enforcement operations last month. Ten soldiers were killed and 31 others were injured during the clashes.

When asked why the military ended the offensives without arresting Usman, Catapang said: “We are just ending the all out offensive because they (BIFF) have splintered into smaller groups. That’s why we will now also operate in smaller groups.”

While the all-out offensive has ended, the military would conduct pursuit operations against Usman and other terrorists operating in the area.

The pursuit operations, Catapang said, would involve smaller group of soldiers.

“Formerly they (BIFF) were in groups of 50 to 100. Now they are just 20 to 30 so it’s part of our tactical move because if we move a hundred of soldiers, the enemy can easily know or locate us or see us,” the military chief said. 

Usman is one of the targets of the Special Action Force (SAF) troopers who figured in the bloody Mamasapano clash in January 25. He managed to evade the police commandos and is believed to be hiding in Maguindanao.

The other target, Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, was killed during the operation.

The military’s all-out offensive against the BIFF started on February 21, almost a month after the encounter in Mamasapano, which left 44 SAF members dead.

Catapang said government forces already have control of the so-called SPMS Box, an area composed of the Maguindanao towns Salvo, Pagatin, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak. He said BIFF rebels who would attempt to enter the area would be annihilated.

“We will continuously pursue them in their temporary hideouts inside the Liguasan marshland and even in the mountainous areas,” Catapang said.

Fresh clashes

The last wave of clashes triggered by the military offensives happened last Sunday and resulted in the death of 12 BIFF members and four soldiers.

The first firefight erupted at around 9:30 a.m. in Barangay Malangog in Datu Unsay town and involved the Scout Rangers and a BIFF sub-group led by a certain Commander Bungos.

“The elite Scout Rangers overran the enemy positions after about an hour of intense firefight, forcing the bandits to flee with numerous casualties as indicated by the heavy pools of blood along their escape route,” Catapang said.

“No one was injured among the Rangers who continuously pursued the bandits in the marshlands,” he added.

Another firefight broke out at around 9:50 a.m. in Barangay Pamalian in Shariff Saydona town and involved troops from the Army’s 34th battalion and BIFF members led by a certain Yusoph Abesalih or “Commander Bisaya.” 

“The soldiers outmaneuvered the bandits, killing some of them including Commander Bisaya,” Catapang said. 

Abesalih is believed to be one of the BIFF rebels who clashed with SAF troopers in Mamasapano last January 25.

The clashes happened after a three-day lull in law enforcement operations in some areas in Maguindanao to give way to the graduation ceremonies from March 26 to 28.

Development phase

Catapang said the next phase of their operations in Maguindanao is the “development phase” and would involve the construction of vital infrastructure like bridges, hospitals and roads.

He said President Aquino has approved the release of P67 million for projects that would spur economic activity in the province.

“We would like to see Maguindanao as a highly-developed area where people enjoy peace, progress and prosperity that we all want for the whole of Mindanao and the entire nation,” Catapang said.

“We are calling on everyone, especially the civil society organizations, to help the people in the affected communities to go back to their normal lives and support their pursuit for lasting peace,” he added.

One of the projects to be inaugurated is the “Bridge for Peace” in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, where the 44 SAF members were pinned down by the combined forces of the BIFF and the MILF.

Security forces are now coordinating with local governments to ensure the safe return of residents who were displaced by the conflict.

“It is very important to note that from a high of more 120,000 evacuees last month, we are now down to 90,000 more or less people who have remained in various evacuation centers and houses of relatives,” Catapang said.

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