By Jeffrey Maitem
Philippine security forces launched fresh assaults against pro-Islamic State militants Tuesday, leaving four enemies dead and two soldiers wounded in heavy clashes on the southern island of Mindanao.
The military offensives took place after militants belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) overran a town hall in Datu Paglas in the southern province of Maguindanao, local military spokesman Capt. Arvin John Encinas told BenarNews. Soldiers repulsed the gunmen, he said.
“We used our air assets since Sunday. Four were killed on the enemy side,” he said.
The gunmen had been massing up in the area since Sunday, Encinas said, adding that the militants began moving to evade pursuing troops.
Thong Paglas, the town’s vice mayor, said that before the clashes, local officials had spoken with Abu Solaiman, leader of a BIFF unit, who rejected their demand to pull out.
“They ignored us, so the military started their assault,” he said, adding that more than 50 families have been forced to abandon their homes.
Local reports said the gunmen also took five civilian hostages and were using them as “human shields.”
The military assault began at the weekend, supposedly targeting BIFF leader Abu Turaipe, whose faction has pledged allegiance to the IS. But he was believed to have escaped the offensive yet again.
“Our soldiers overran Turaipe’s house (but) he managed to escape,” Encinas said. He said two soldiers were wounded in the gun battles.
The BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main separatist group, which signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
The BIFF had vowed to push on with the separatist fight, attracting younger, more hardline members of the MILF.
Turaipe’s forces number in the dozens and have been engaged in hit-and-run attacks with the military.
The group had publicly expressed support for last year’s attack by another pro-IS group on the city of Marawi, also in the south, but did not send fighters. At least 1,200 people, mostly militants, were killed in five months of vicious fighting in Marawi.
The Initiatives for International Dialogue, a group advocating peace, called on government troops as well as local government officials on Tuesday to ensure the public’s safety as troops go after the militants.
"We are seriously alarmed and bothered by the possible extent of civilian casualties – most of whom are women and children – if this conflict will continue,” Gus Miclat, the group’s executive director, told BenarNews.
He said the hostilities broke out just as the central government in Manila was hammering out the final details of a proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that would give minority Muslims expanded autonomy in the south.
Congress had passed the BBL earlier, and President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to sign it into law when he delivers his annual “state of the nation” address in July.
“We invoke the state’s responsibility to protect and fulfill the rights of internally displaced persons during evacuation until their safe and dignified return to their places of origin,” Miclat said.
He warned that a watered-down BBL could lead to further trouble in the south.
The BBL was envisioned to outline the basic structure of a proposed autonomy in Mindanao. Under the deal, the government had promised to pass the BBL, which would spell out the boundaries of the autonomous government.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.
- Copyright ©2017, BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews.