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Philippines rebel group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters undermines peace talks

By Rene P. Acosta
Philippine soldiers ride on armored personnel carriers as they patrol along a highway in Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, in July as thousands of supporters of Muslim separatist rebels converged in Sultan Kudarat in preparation for peace talks with the government. [Reuters]

Philippine soldiers ride on armored personnel carriers as they patrol along a highway in Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, in July as thousands of supporters of Muslim separatist rebels converged in Sultan Kudarat in preparation for peace talks with the government. [Reuters]

MANILA – Attacks by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters [BIFF] are challenging peace talks between the government and the larger Muslim group Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF].

The BIFF is a group of radical armed Muslims espousing independence in the Southern Philippines. Headed by Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, the group is considered responsible for attacks in the province of Maguindanao.

Government and MILF officials responded to the hostilities by claiming their peace talks in Kuala Lumpur were not affected by the attacks.

Attacks on military camps

The BIFF is displaying its capabilities to create a full-scale conflict and undermine efforts to bring permanent peace in the Southern Philippines, particularly in Central Mindanao where BIFF and MILF base their largest forces. The radical group, which vowed to not settle for anything but an independent Muslim state, simultaneously attacked power facilities and the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade military camps and detachments in five towns in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato in August.

The rogue Muslims, headed by Ustadz Carialan, also occupied key highways that connect Maguindanao to other provinces, temporarily sealing off the province. The rebels cut down electric lines and bombed two transmission towers of the National Grid Corp., plunging at least 11 towns into darkness.

Carialan, BIFF chief of staff, is leading the group’s more than 500 fighters. The military reported he took control of troops after Kato was incapacitated by a stroke suffered last year.

As soldiers cleared major roads and highways in and around Maguindanao, the fighting shifted however to the mountainous areas in the towns of Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi and Shariff Aguak.

Col. Mayoralgo dela Cruz, commander of the 1st Mechanized Brigade, said his troops killed at least 50 rebels, mostly by howitzer and cannon fire.

By Aug. 20, the military had seized five BIFF satellite camps, all within MILF’s Camp Omar in Maguindanao. The fifth encampment, taken by the Army’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion at the southern part of Camp Omar, can accommodate 100 people and has 10 bunkers with overhead protection. It revealed war materials and personal belongings left behind by its occupants.

Maj. Gen. Rey Ardo, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, said the satellite camps are being used by the fighters to stage their attacks on highways and civilian communities.

At the peak of fighting, at least 7,865 families or 39,325 people in 18 barangays were forced to flee from their homes, while classes in 16 schools were suspended, affecting 10,572 students.

Army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said more soldiers have been deployed in strategic locations to thwart any attempt by Kato’s men to conduct more attacks, especially against civilians.

The MILF declared attacks unjustified

“So, what did they gain? … Nothing, except putting in the consciousness of people that they are still there, alive and kicking. But in exchange, their safe haven is now free fire zone,” MILF leaders said in an editorial posted on its website.

“There is virtually no way to justify the military offensive of the so-called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters [BIFF]. It is ill-timed during the Holy Month of Ramadan,” the editorial said.

“It is not MILF’s policy to speak ill of fellow Muslims especially during Ramadan. But what is now taking place in Maguindanao, courtesy of the BIFF, will be more harmful, if we do not come out with a statement. A real organization, such as the MILF, will have to take a position. Silence, in the face of this serious development, is never a good policy. We, therefore, have to say, because we are not only challenged but also aggrieved.”

Still, MILF leaders do not want to involve their group in any offensive against the BIFF.

Hardliner Kato spearheaded the massive and widespread attacks of the MILF in Central Mindanao in 2008 after the Supreme Court junked the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain amid peace negotiations. The hostilities quickly spread in Western Mindanao.

MILF leaders believed that the latest attacks by Kato’s men were meant to shame them as they held their 30th exploratory talks with the Philippine government in Kuala Lumpur.

“It is no secret that one of the reasons why the BIFF bolted away from the MILF was over their stiff opposition to MILF’s policy to talk peace with the enemy. To them, the only way to deal with the enemy is through the barrel of the gun. One who is the most radical of them even branded the leaders of the MILF as traitors to the Moro cause. We just let it fall on deaf ears; we never answered back. We know nothing good will get out of it if we engage them in senseless mudslinging,” the MILF editorial said


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