BIFF to pull out from front in support of MILF peace talks

COTABATO CITY, Southern Philippines – The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is heeding a call to stop its offensives against military targets to pave the way for the GPH-MILF talks in Malaysia.

“Yes, we will abide by their appeal; it’s not a big deal. If we can feed a starving cat asking for food, why not this simple request of our brothers?” Abumisry Mama, spokesperson of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) breakaway group headed by Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato.

The MILF leadership had earlier scored the BIFF’s offensives in parts of Maguindanao, saying in its official website, luwaran.com, that it could not be justified. Moreover, as the offensive was carried out within Ramadan, Islam’s holiest celebration, the MILF criticized its timing.

Notified of the development, MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq said the leadership was glad but said they have yet to receive official word from the BIFF itself.

On the other hand, the BIFF’s Mama said they will maintain “defensive position” in areas they claim they hold.

According to Mama, they are also open to negotiation with any government agency.

“It’s just nobody came to talk or negotiate to us now”, Mama said.

The BIFF is composed of former MILF fighters in the command of Kato who, in turn, gained notoriety following raids in North Cotabato villages of 2008, following the failed signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, but who is now reportedly in poor health following a stroke.

He was allegedly in Cebu City recently to receive treatment.

De-escalation

Military sources welcomed Mama’s pronouncement as well, saying this gives reprieve to the thousands of civilians already displaced by skirmishes along Maguindanao and North Cotabato weeks ago.

“We will just hope the BIFF’s statement is sincere and would really mean it, they had brought too much loss to the lives of many Maguindanaon residents who fled their homes,” Colonel Prudencio Asto of the Philippine Army’s 6th Division said.

“We will resume supporting police operations in their legal offensive to bring back normalcy in the province,” Asto added when asked if the military would reciprocate the BIFF de-escalation.

Some 5,680 families – representing some 30,000 individuals and mostly from the towns of Datu Unsay, Shariff Aguak, Ampatuan, Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Guindulungan in Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato – have been displaced since hostilities between the BIFF and the armed forces erupted early last month, reports the UN-backed Protection Cluster-Mindanao.

In response, four evacuation centers have been set up in Maguindanao, plus four more in Pikit.

Gunfight

In an incident report released last month, Protection Cluster-Mindanao noted that the first exchange between the BIFF and the military followed the simultaneous raids the BIFF launched against four military detachments in Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Guindulungan, and Datu Unsay on Aug. 5.

The BIFF, through Mama, justified the raid by calling it a response to the “treacherous” killings of their comrades last June 20.

Fighting was noted in Barangay Crossing Salbu in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, Barangays Kamasi, Kauran and Saniag in Ampatuan Municipality the next day.

“Some families in Barangays Dalingaoen and Takipan of Pikit municipality (were) pre-emptively evacuated due to presence of armed groups,” the report read, adding that an improvised explosive device was also detonated in the highway linking Pikit and Pagalungan towns last Aug. 7.

In retaliation, the AFP dropped mortars in Barangay Dalingaoen in Pikit and Barangay Labu-Labu in Shariff Aguak, leading to more evacuations.

Fighting continued the next days, with a bomb being detonated in Barangay Kamasi, in Ampatuan, as a military convoy was travelling through from Datu Saudi Ampatuan on its way to the municipality of Isulan, Sultan Kudarat Province.

A military detachment in Barangay Upper Salbu and Lower Salbu in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town were repeatedly fired upon and sniper fire were reported in Barangay Tambunan in Guindulungan town and Barangay Crossing Salbu in Datu Saudi. (Ferdinandh Cabrera for Pecojon.PH)