Militant Group Attacks Southern Philippine Village

Dennis Santos and Froilan Gallardo
2017.06.21
Cotabato, Philippines
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170621-BIFF-620.jpg Adults calm children near Malagakit Elementary School in the southern Philippine province of North Cotabato after rebels occupied the school, June 21, 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Philippine security forces on Wednesday repelled an attack by about 200 militants who retreated to an elementary school and took hostages in a town 50 miles south of Marawi City, where soldiers are battling Islamic State-backed (IS) extremists, military officials said.

Armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the men belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) apparently took advantage of the weak troop presence in the town of Pigcawayan on Mindanao island and attacked a military outpost at dawn before occupying a school and taking about 30 hostages, including students.

Padilla said Wednesday’s attack was “just a harassment case” designed to take advantage of the situation in Marawi, a scenic southern city and Muslim trading hub seized on May 23 by hundreds of Abu Sayyaf and Maute militants backed by foreign fighters.

“By and large, these harassments were ongoing even before the Marawi incident,” Padilla told reporters in Manila.

Allied with IS?

The BIFF is a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main Muslim guerrilla force which gave up its rebellion for a separatist Muslim homeland in the south when it signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.

BIFF had broken off from the MILF to pursue its fight for independence, although military officials said many of its members are believed to be engaged in banditry.

Wednesday’s fighting raised fresh alarms in the south, which President Rodrigo Duterte earlier placed under martial law.

It also came just two days after Manila’s Solicitor General Jose Calida released a list of 20 armed groups said to be allied with the Islamic State. It named the BIFF, the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group as among those that needed to be closely watched.

The BIFF has never claimed to be allied with the Islamic State, saying in several instances in the past that it was fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the south.

Padilla said the BIFF may have launched the attack on Wednesday to project that they still exist. The attack, while serious, is not something comparable with the security problem in Marawi, he said.

After a month of combat and aerial bombing by the military, Marawi resembles war-torn cities in Syria. Social welfare officials in Manila say 330,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, a figure significantly higher than the official population of Marawi, around 200,000.

As of June 20, government officials said, the battle in Marawi had killed 258 militants, 65 soldiers and policemen, and 26 civilians. The head doctor at a military hospital in the area said her facility had treated more than 340 soldiers wounded in the fighting.

Hostages released

The firefight with the BIFF rebels in Pigcawayan, a farming town, wounded at least two pro-government militiamen, officials said. About 1,000 villagers were evacuated, they said.

The gunmen escaped to the nearby marshy area after sundown, freeing about 31 hostages, including a number of students, said local army spokesman Capt. Arvin Encinas.

Encinas said the hostages were released unharmed as government troops prepared to attack.

“Right now, officially, they no longer hold hostages,” Encinas told BenarNews. “Pursuit operations, however, are ongoing.”

Latest police reports from Pigcawayan said the BIFF gunmen were led by a man who carried the nom de guerre Commander Abunawas.

BIFF spokesman Abu Misri Mama confirmed, in a cellphone interview with BenarNews, that the group was behind the attack, which he said was launched as a “tactical offensive.”

He denied that the group was linked to the militants who laid siege to Marawi, even as he welcomed the struggle of fellow Muslims in the south.

“This is our offensive, not the Maute or Abu Sayyaf’s,” Mama told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, Padilla said the situation in Marawi was improving slowly even as remnants of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute still control a small portion of the city, more than a month since they launched hostilities.

“We are prioritizing the areas that are built-up or heavily built-up, which means to say those that are constructed well and can withstand attacks and bombardments and potentially may have basement areas or hidden areas underneath that can protect them from any kind of assault from the air,” Padilla said.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Kidapawan City contributed to this report.

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