By Roy Ramos
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines (AA) – The Philippines’ military announced Sunday that 33 members of a Daesh-linked breakaway rebel group were killed in four days of fighting in a troubled majority Muslim southern province.
Col. Lito Sobejana, 601st Brigade commander, said government forces regained control from Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) gunmen of communities in the neighboring Maguindanao towns of Datu Unsay and Shariff Aguak.
GMA News quoted him as saying the clashes also injured 10 BIFF members and five soldiers — one of them in a critical condition — with security forces recovering four explosives during the clearing operations.
“About the clearing operation, before the BIFF withdrew they left many IEDs [improvised explosive devices] as reported by the civilians,” he said.
Referring to the country’s one-time largest Muslim rebel group, he added, “we requested the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] to clear the area because they are familiar with the terrain, so that civilians can go back to their communities.”
The BIFF broke with the MILF in 2008 because of disagreements with the MILF central committee’s acceptance of autonomy rather than full independence for the country’s Muslim south.
The BIFF is opposed to an ongoing peace process between the government and the MILF.
GMA reported Sunday that residents and village officials of the Maguindanao towns — where the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) government said 696 families were affected by the clashes — were hesitant to return, fearing the BIFF might attack the soldiers remaining in their communities.
Members of an international team monitoring the peace process, the government and MILF’s cease-fire mechanism the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, and the ARMM’s relief operation body took part in the ground and clearing operations.
The ARMM’s Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Teams have started distributing relief supplies at evacuation centers.
“We are here after we learned there are many evacuees. We will visit our brothers and sisters to know what their real situation [is],” Myrna Jo Henry, its information official, was quoted as saying.
The BIFF, however, refuted the military’s fatality figures.
Its spokesman, Abu Misry Mama, said only three members were killed in this week’s clashes, and insisted the group retained control of several areas.
Two militant groups in the Philippines’ troubled south — the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf — have pledged allegiance to Daesh, prompting fears during the stalling of the peace process between the government and the MILF that Daesh could make inroads in a region torn by decades of armed conflict.