Gov't troops, BIFF clash anew in Maguindanao
John Unson (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2015 - 1:35pm

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines - Heavy fighting between soldiers and members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) erupted anew on Friday in five areas in Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay towns.

Different groups of BIFF bandits were quick to block stretches of the Cotabato-General Santos Highway that straddles through the two towns to divert the attention of Army and Marine combatants pursuing extremists reportedly coddling foreign-trained bomber Abdul Basit Usman.

Usman, an ethnic Maguindanaon, was a cohort of the slain Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.

The hostilities in Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay, both in the second district of Maguindanao, erupted when BIFF gunmen opened fire at patrolling soldiers, dispatched to verify reported sightings by Moro villagers of gunmen converging in different areas, as if preparing for attacks.

Officials of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division said the “calibrated police action” against the BIFF in the two towns was coordinated with the joint ceasefire committee of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in keeping with all security protocols crafted bilaterally by the GPH and MILF panels.

The BIFF, led by radical foreign-trained clerics, some of them with links to Al-Qaeda is not covered by the July 1997 Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities between the government and the MILF.

The military-BIFF firefights forced hundreds of Moro families to evacuate to safer areas, bringing with them their valuables and farm animals.

Battle-hardened combatants of the 6th Marine Battalion from coastal towns in Sultan Kudarat province, backed by V-300 combat vehicles, are helping Army units neutralize the criminal BIFF forces holding out in the two towns.

Evacuees have confirmed that six BIFF gunmen were killed in the initial encounters.

The 6th ID's spokesperson Army Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, however, said they cannot confirm the number of BIFF fatalities.

"We have been receiving persistent feedback from villagers that the group indeed suffered fatalities but we don't have actual enemy `body count' that we can use as basis for confirmation," Petinglay said.

Four wounded bandits, all adolescents, were also seen being carried by companions away from the scene just as Army artillery units started pounding their positions with mortars.

Local officials gathered the evacuees in makeshift evacuation sites and public school campuses far from the barangays where government forces and BIFF members have been trading shots since past 10:00 a.m. Friday.

Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said he directed the ARMM’s Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) to dispatch workers to Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay to attend to the needs of evacuees.

The HEART is comprised of volunteers from the ARMM’s health, social welfare and public works departments.

Hataman said hundreds of poor Moro families were dislocated by the ensuing firefights between soldiers and the BIFF.

ABDUL BASIT USMAN ARMY AND MARINE ARMY CAPT BANGSAMORO ISLAMIC FREEDOM FIGHTERS BIFF COTABATO-GENERAL SANTOS HIGHWAY DATU SAUDI AND DATU UNSAY GENERAL CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES HUMANITARIAN EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE AND RESPONSE TEAM INFANTRY DIVISION JO-ANN PETINGLAY
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