Philippine President Calls on Muslim Autonomous Region’s Leaders to Help Control Militants

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-05-11
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Philippine President Calls on Muslim Autonomous Region’s Leaders to Help Control Militants Police from the Philippine Criminal Investigation and Detection Group escort two suspected members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters group, who were caught allegedly transporting explosives near Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao province, May 11, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

President Rodrigo Duterte urged officials of a Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines on Tuesday to help rein in a group of Islamic State-linked militants or risk an all-out military offensive.

In a surprise visit to a military camp in the town of Datu Odin Sinsuat near Cotabato, Duterte met with officials of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) as well as military and police commanders. Three days earlier, members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) briefly occupied a town market in the area before government troops chased them away.

Duterte emphasized that developments such as peace and transitional efforts in the region were being threatened by BIFF.

“The monkey wrench in the whole situation now is the BIFF and they continue to inflict not just small violence,” Duterte said, according to a transcript of his comments. “They continue to burn, ambush and detonate bombs, really full-blown terrorism.”

The president appealed to the Bangsamoro officials to help him, “because, otherwise, if I give the order for an all-out war offensive, it will be bloody and it will be sad.”

Duterte did not specify what he meant, but it is widely accepted here that some BIFF commanders have maintained links to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, according to analysts.

One faction of BIFF has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group, while another continues to espouse a separatist ideology.

The MILF, the country’s largest former separatist group, controls the BARMM. The BIFF had split from MILF because it wanted to fight for an independent Muslim homeland in the Philippine south after MILF signed a peace deal with Manila.

Duterte said the government was doing everything it could to bring “effective governance to the BARMM,” and it pained him to see that BIFF was still carrying out attacks.

“It’s pure carnage,” he said, adding those most affected by the violence are civilians.

Duterte blamed the BIFF “and other allied terrorists” for ongoing violence in the region.

He said he had been telling troops to stand down and respond only if attacked.

“But this cannot go on. This cannot be,” Duterte said. “I am avoiding the situation where things will go out of control and the military, upon my orders, is forced to press for a fight in order to impose peace.”

If that scenario happens, “there will be an all-out offensive,” he warned.

“And if I give the order, I will no longer withdraw it. I will wait for the next president to do what he wants with Mindanao,” said Duterte, whose six-year term ends in 2022.

210511-PH-bangsamoro-inside.jpg
Government troops secure a roadway after Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters temporarily occupied the main public market in the town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, May 8, 2021. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]

Increased attacks

While BARMM leaders are responsible for peace and order in the region, they have had to ask for the military’s help to repel BIFF militants who have been stepping up attacks lately.

Over the weekend, troops engaged BIFF militants in a brief gunbattle as they drove them from the agricultural town of Datu Paglas, where the militants took over the main public market on Saturday morning, spokesman Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar said at the time.

On Tuesday, police in Cotabato said two alleged BIFF members identified as Jerwali Salem Zabel, 32, and Nasrullah Abdullah Walingan, 24, were arrested during the preceding afternoon when they tried to pass with explosives through a checkpoint in Datu Paglas near the site of Saturday’s gunbattle. Officers seized two improvised bombs and a gun, officials said.

In 2017, the BIFF backed a five-month siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern pro-IS fighters, but held off from sending its own fighters there.

In 2019, the BIFF was blamed for a series of bomb attacks in the south, including on a town market and at a restaurant in the town of Isulan that injured eight and 18 respectively.

And in March, 14 BIFF fighters were killed in clashes in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, also in Maguindanao.

Philippine authorities also tied BIFF to a series of violent incidents in the south last month, saying these stemmed from the group’s opposition to the formation of a joint peacekeeping force between the MILF and the military.

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