Rebels killed, residents displaced in southern Philippines ahead of Ramadan

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato City, Philippines
Rebels killed, residents displaced in southern Philippines ahead of Ramadan Then-Lt. Gen. Alfredo Rosario Jr. (left), commander of the Western Mindanao Command, inspects a .50-caliber Browning machine gun, which was among 45 firearms seized by army troops from Muslim militants in Marawi City, southern Philippines, March 3, 2022.
Froilan Gallardo/AP

A deadly shootout involving fighters from a splinter rebel group and its storming of a village in a separate incident over the weekend rattled an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines ahead of this week’s start of Ramadan.

Soldiers from the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team clashed with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters on Saturday in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, a town in Maguindanao del Sur province, killing two suspected BIFF members, said Brig. Gen. Jose Vladimir Cagara, the army commander in the area.

Maguindanao del Sur is one of the provinces in the so-called Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which came into being in 2019 and is home to a fragile peace between Manila and former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatist guerrillas, who administer the region. The BIFF broke away from the MILF after the latter agreed to a peace deal with Manila 10 years ago.  

Cagara said authorities had received reports that about 20 armed members of the BIFF were meeting in the remote village of Kitango. Soldiers dispatched to the region to validate the information were attacked by BIFF, provoking the gunfight, he said.

“The bodies of militants were recovered along with a rifle, a .50-caliber homemade Barrett [rifle] and homemade explosives,” Cagara told reporters on Saturday.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front today controls the large autonomous region, and has been helping the Philippine military against other southern militant factions.  

Also on Saturday, about 100 armed men stormed a village shortly after midnight in the nearby town of Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao del Norte province, forcing an estimated 350 residents to evacuate.

The village chief of Ambolodto, Bai Shamin Limbona, said in a radio interview that the gunmen attacked the community, firing automatic weapons in different directions. No casualties were reported, as Limbona said the military arrived.

“I believe this is politically motivated,” Limbona said without giving additional details.

Limbona said the residents had returned to their homes but were keeping boxes and suitcases packed over fears of another attack.

Meanwhile on Sunday, a university student was gunned down in broad daylight after attending a morning Catholic Mass in Cotabato City, the capital of the Bangsamoro region. Police on Monday told reporters they did not have details about the killer of Michael Jan Mangulamas, 21, and they had not yet established a motive.

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Filipinos hold a “Rukyatul Hilal” to view the crescent moon to determine the start of Ramadan when Muslims fast for a month, in Cotabato City, southern Philippines, March 10, 2024. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

The series of incidents occurred a few days before millions of Filipino Muslims, most of whom live in the south, particularly in the Bangsamoro region, start their annual fasting during the month of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam. For 30 days, they are required to refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours.

Sheikh Abdulrauf Guialani, the Bangsamoro jurist or mufti, officially declared that the first day of Ramadan fasting would fall on March 12.

“By the authority vested in me, the crescent moon was not sighted today; therefore, Ramadan fasting will officially begin on Tuesday,” Guialani said in an announcement on Sunday.

Before departing from Manila for a state visit to Germany and the Czech Republic, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expressed his solidarity with Muslim Filipinos, saying Ramadan has a “special significance” in the country as “it reminds the people of the rich diversity of our cultural and religious tapestry in the Philippines.”

In a statement on Sunday, Marcos expressed hope that the religious occasion would “strengthen kingship” and pave the way for forgiveness.

“It is my hope that this month-long celebration will strengthen our kinship, open our hearts to forgive past grievances and embrace a spirit of harmony that will redound to our collective progress,” Marcos said in his message.

The Philippines is a majority Catholic country.

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Filipino Muslims spend the afternoon at Timako Port in Cotabato City, southern Philippines, March 10, 2024, ahead of the start of Ramadan. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

The autonomous Bangsmaro region has struggled with violence five years after its birth and a little more than a year before its first-ever parliamentary elections.

Weapons in the hands of armed groups including former rebels and private armies, combined with the slow trickle of funds from Manila meant to lift the region out of poverty, remain core challenges, according to analysts and BARMM Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim. 

He told BenarNews earlier this year that there are “many loose firearms in the Bangsamoro.”

Analysts warned of a potentially highly charged May 2025 elections in the region, owing to political feuds and conflicts among clans, along with potential acts of terrorism. The October 2023 village elections in BARMM, analysts said, were “the bloodiest elections recorded in the last decade.”


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