MAGUINDANAO, Philippines — Government troops, some in armored vehicles, drove yesterday dozens of heavily armed members of the Islamic State (IS)-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) from a town market in Maguindanao where they had camped out overnight, stoking fears of another siege similar to the one that ravaged Marawi in May 2017.
Maj. Gen. Juvymax Uy, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, said security forces secured the market and the entire Datu Paglas town following a 15- to 30-minute gunfight with BIFF members at around 6 a.m. yesterday. The town is 10 kilometers from the municipality of Buluan, where the provincial capitol is located.
“No property damage, no civilian deaths, no hostage taking contrary to what’s being talked about in social media,” Uy told reporters in Filipino.
He added the “situation is manageable” and that government forces are “under control, on top of the situation.” But he said “pursuit operation” was ongoing.
There was no official word yet on the number of BIFF fighters involved, although some accounts place it at 50.
Villagers confirmed to The STAR seeing fleeing militants carry five wounded companions, three of them adolescents named Sukarno, Bansil and Usop.
“One possible reason for their show of force is to show that the BIFF Karialan bloc has remained strong despite the deaths of many members in recent encounters with our troops and the surrender of many from September last year to April this year,” Uy said.
The BIFF Karialan group lost 17 men in 13 encounters with units of the 6th ID between Jan. 17 and April 28.
Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar, 6ID spokesman, said the armed group targeted the market to secure food and other provisions.
“They went into the market and stole food but got stuck inside when they saw that our forces have taken positions to ensure other buildings could not be threatened,” he told reporters.
“They have no other objective but to sow terror in Maguindanao because they want to show everyone that they’re still a force to reckon with,” Baldomar said.
He said they had to evacuate an undetermined number of civilians as well as close the national highway.
The rebel group broke off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, after it entered into peace talks and later signed a Muslim autonomy deal with the government in 2014.
The breakaway guerrillas have continued sporadic attacks and bombings, with some aligning themselves with the IS group.
Baldomar said government forces also locked down the town center, where the public market is located, at the height of the hours-long rebel occupation of the market.
After the gunmen fled in batches following talks with local officials, soldiers found at least four homemade bombs placed by the rebels along the highway. Troops were pursuing the gunmen, he said.
Datu Paglas Vice Mayor Mohammad Paglas, however, gave a different account and told reporters that the mostly young Muslim rebels arrived on board five trucks in the town center Friday to rest and mark the holy fasting month of Ramadan. He added some of the gunmen have relatives in the town in predominantly Muslim Maguindanao province.
“A big number of gunmen arrived and told us they just wanted to take a rest since it’s Ramadan. We allowed them,” Paglas said.
When troops and police arrived, the rebels were forced to retreat into the public market for cover but allowed people to leave the building, he said.
Paglas said there was an exchange of fire before the rebels fled, as requested by local officials.
Baldomar said some of the gunmen opened fire on civilian motorists, who were trapped along the highway. The motorists later managed to flee with the help of the military, he said.
Government forces have been on alert in the south, homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation, after hundreds of mostly local militants with some foreign supporters linked to the IS group laid siege on Marawi city in 2017.
They took over buildings, including banks, school campuses and a hospital, before troops quelled the insurrection after five months with the help of surveillance aircraft deployed by the US and Australia.
The audacious attack at the time reinforced fears that the IS was gaining a foothold in the Southeast Asia despite battle setbacks in Iraq and Syria. – Romina Cabrera