100,000 people displaced by Maguindanao clashes

John Unson (The Philippine Star) - March 20, 2015 - 11:35am

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines - The military and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) figured in 21 encounters in the province in the past two weeks and tension is still high due to reports that the bandits are regrouping to re-engage.

Members of the Maguindanao inter-agency provincial peace and order council (PPOC) on Thursday agreed to organize a committee that would determine the viability of returning evacuees to their enclaves which soldiers had cleared from BIFF occupation in tactical maneuvers that started last March 1.

The Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division reported during the PPOC meeting that the BIFF has been forced to break into smaller groups to avoid detection.

Representatives of the Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the office of Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu reported to the PPOC that there are now more than 100,000 evacuees from interior areas in the second district of the province where soldiers and bandits have had 21 encounters in recent days.

Brig. Gen. Manolito Orense, assistant division commander of the 6th Infantry Division, said that while they sympathize with the evacuees displaced by the clashes between the BIFF and pursuing government forces, they cannot just return them immediately to their barangays only to be harassed by bandits again.

“There must be careful planning. The Army and Marine units now present in those barangays cannot just simply leave without putting up security mechanisms meant to prevent the return of these armed lawless groups,” Orense pointed out.

The BIFF, which is responsible for deadly bombings in Central Mindanao, is known for its enforcement of a ruthless Taliban-style justice system in areas where it operates.

The group, led by religious extremists, some of them preachers trained in secular Islamic schools in the Middle East and North Africa, is also notorious for mulcting “protection money” from peasants on a regular basis.

Mangudadatu said a “special committee” can be activated by the PPOC to assess the viability of returning internally displaced folks to barangays the military had cleared from BIFF control.

Members of the PPOC, chaired by Mangudadatu, agreed with the plan.

“The committee must be composed of officials of affected local government units, the police, the religious communities, the military and barangay captains,” Mangudadatu said.

Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr., chairman of the government’s ceasefire committee dealing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said they can even involve the MILF in the assessment process in keeping with existing security protocols between the group and the GPH peace panel.

The BIFF is not covered by the 1997 Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities between the government and the MILF.

Mangudadatu said one big concern for the provincial government now is how farmers can return to their farms to re-start propagating rice, corn and other term crops to sustain their families.

“Life in the evacuation centers is very difficult,” he said.

The ARMM-HEART and the provincial government have dispersed more than 100 tons of food supplies to evacuees now cramped in evacuation sites in 11 towns in the province in separate, continuing humanitarian missions that started three weeks ago.

ARMY AND MARINE AUTONOMOUS REGION BANGSAMORO ISLAMIC FREEDOM FIGHTERS BIFF CARLITO GALVEZ CENTRAL MINDANAO ESMAEL MANGUDADATU GENERAL CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES INFANTRY DIVISION MANGUDADATU
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