BIFF leader captured in Cotabato City

Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Security forces in Cotabato City have arrested a suspected leader of the separatist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the military said yesterday.

Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said BIFF commander Abdulgani Esmael Pagao was arrested by military and police forces in Campo Muslim in Barangay Mother Bagua at about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Pagao was arrested by authority of a search warrant issued by Executive Judge Bansawan Ibrahim. A loaded .45 caliber pistol and a grenade were seized from the suspect.

Pagao was arrested outside the so-called SPMS box, an area in Maguindanao where government forces want to constrict BIFF rebels. SPMS stands for the towns of Salvo, Pagatin, Mamasapano and Shariff Aguak.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr. said Pagao had managed to get out of the SPMS box despite the presence of military troops.

“The area is very porous but they are being monitored,” Catapang said.

Pagao was turned over to the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group for inquest proceedings after his arrest. He is said to be one of the deputies of BIFF founder Ameril Umbra Kato, now bedridden because of a stroke.

Officials added Pagao is a trusted lieutenant of Ali Tambako, the arrested leader of the extremist Justice Islamic Movement (JIM).

Tambako helped Kato establish the BIFF following a fallout with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in July 2010.

Pagao’s arrest happened hours after the military ended its “all-out offensive” against the BIFF in Maguindanao.

The military said the operations were halted since the rebel group sustained many casualties and its ranks were depleted.

The military said most of the casualties resulted from a series of firefights with government forces since Sunday in Datu Unsay and Datu Saudi Ampatuan towns, the area where the BIFF rebels broke up into small groups to evade troops.

However, four soldiers were killed and two others wounded in the fighting, according to Capt. Ma. Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson for Western Mindanao Command.

Muyuela said ground reports confirmed that among the 13 BIFF casualties was a top rebel commander identified as Commander Usop Abe Salih alias Commander Bisaya.

Catapang earlier said 151 BIFF rebels were killed, 64 injured and 12 captured since the launch of operations last month.

However, the main target, fugitive Filipino terrorist Basit Usman, remains at large.

“The order of the President is to get Usman but we will continue (to run after him),” Catapang said.

“What is important is we were able to separate the MILF and the BIFF. We have reduced the peace spoilers,” he added.

Catapang said he wants security forces to capture Usman before the rainy season.

“It will be hard to operate in the area during rainy days,” he said.

While previous military statements have labeled the BIFF as “terrorists,” Catapang remains hopeful that the group will abandon violence to talk peace.

“Hopefully they can also join us. We are willing to talk to them, if they want to. If they want peace talks, we can do that for as long as they do not harm or disturb peace in these areas,” he said.

Catapang also urged evacuees to start returning to their homes since peace and order has been restored following the military operation against the BIFF. – With John Unson, Roel Pareño

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