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What happened before: Mamasapano incident 3rd SAF-MILF clash since 1995

John Unson - The Philippine Star

MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao - The deadly encounter last Sunday between members of the police’s elite Special Action Force (SAF) and Moro rebels in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao was not Central Mindanao's first, but the third since 1995.

More than a dozen SAF operatives were killed in 1995 in an encounter with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in Barangay Gokotan in Pikit, North Cotabato during the height of an uprising by peasant-guerillas in nearby Kibines District in Carmen, also in the same province, in protest of attempts to force them out of their lands around the Malitubog-Maridagao irrigation dam being constructed in the area then.

The multi-million irrigation project, designed to irrigate some 10,000-hectares of rice farms in North Cotabato, was bankrolled by foreign donors.

The SAF members were running after a band of MILF rebels, reportedly led by Pakil Ayunan, who were sympathetic to their companions fighting government forces in Kibines, led by Kagui Magandingan Manalos.

The SAF team was ambushed while maneuvering through a corn field near houses occupied by armed villagers and hardcore secessionist rebels.

Outnumbered and outflanked, the SAF men were almost wiped out in the encounter.

The rebels divested the slain policemen of their firearms, combat boots and other belongings before repositioning away, anticipating a military counter-offensive.

The rebels, whose commander lost a sibling in the encounter, even held hostage for several hours the broadcast crew of Catholic station dxMS in Cotabato City, led by journalist Allan Nawal, now working for a national newspaper, who arrived at Barangay Gokotan the next day to investigate on the SAF-MILF encounter.

The armed group confiscated the two-way radios of the reporters before allowing them to leave, after learning that Nawal is of Maguindanaon descent and related to influential commanders of the Moro National Liberation Front in North Cotabato’s adjoining Pikit, Carmen and Kabacan towns.

The broadcast equipment the rebels took from Nawal and his companions were returned two days later through the efforts of senior MILF officials Ghadzali Jaafar and Muhaquer Iqbal.

Jaafar was the rebel group’s vice chairman for political affairs then. He is now the second vice chairman of the MILF’s central committee and occasionally acts as the group’s spokesperson.

Iqbal at that time was still the MILF’s chief information and propaganda officer. He became the group’s chief negotiator later and was instrumental in the crafting, along with the government’s peace panel, of the October 15, 2013 Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro and, subsequently, the March 27, 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro.

Several SAF members were killed in another encounter with MILF rebels in an interior area near Barangay Rajah Muda, also in Pikit in 2005, exactly 10 years after the Gokotan incident.

The firefight involved local guerillas and a group of SAF operatives, originally from Manila, then assigned to guard interior areas in northeast of Pikit, including the MILF bastion Buliok Complex, which the Army and Marines liberated from rebel control in February 2003 after an extensive, three week operation dubbed “Oplan Alab Lahi.”

The Alab Lahi offensive, supervised by the now retired Major Gen. Generoso Senga of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, was to flush out members of the “Pentagon” kidnapping syndicate from the 3,000-hectare Buliok Complex at the swampy border of Pikit and Pagalungan town in Maguindanao.

The military operation, which culminated on Valentine’s Day in 2003, forced the MILF’s founding chairman, Egyptian-trained cleric Imam Salamat Hashim, to abandon his house at the Buliok Complex, relocate to the hinterland Butig town in Lanao del Sur, where he died from a cardiac ailment several months later.

Central Mindanao's second bloody SAF-MILF gunfight erupted when policemen intruded into a guerilla enclave near Barangay Rajah Muda to search for a wanted person on the behest of Pikit’s town mayor then.

The SAF team suffered fatalities and lost several sophisticated rifles equipped with sniping scopes and night vision devices in the ensuing firefight.

Last Sunday’s fierce SAF-MILF encounter in Mamasapano, located in the second district of Maguindanao, happened also 10 years after the two groups fought for the second time in Pikit.

The SAF contingent that arrived in Mamasapano before dawn Sunday was to search for two terrorists, Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli Abd Hir, also known as "Marwan," and his ethnic Maguindanaon cohort, Abdul Basit Usman.

Marwan is a member of the Jemaah Islamiya, the Asian cell of Al-Qaeda. Usman, wanted for deadly bombings in Central Mindanao in years past, was said to have undergone training in handling of explosives and fabrication of improvised bombs in Peshawar, Pakistan and in Kandahar, Afghanistan during the late 1980s.

At least 44 SAF operatives were killed when MILF rebels and members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked them from different directions for allegedly intruding into their enclaves in Mamasapano’s adjoining Barangays Tukanalipao and Mangapang without prior coordination. 

Local officials said 11 MILF fighters were killed in the encounter, which also left two villagers dead.

BARANGAY GOKOTAN

BARANGAY RAJAH MUDA

BULIOK COMPLEX

CENTRAL MINDANAO

MAMASAPANO

MILF

NORTH COTABATO

PIKIT

REBELS

SAF

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