MANILA (UPDATE) – The Philippine Army on Tuesday said at least 17 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were killed by government troops during an offensive operation launched Monday.
The Moro fighters, however, denied the military's claims.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said the reports on the deaths came from the troops and barangay officials in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Datu Piang, Sultan sa Barongis and Datu Salibo in Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato.
Hermoso said the Army has yet to receive more detailed reports on the casualties.
"Traversing the terrain for the soldiers is hard because they are on the fringes of Liguasan Marsh. Maybe today we can get a verified report as soon as the troops on the ground are able to submit details," Hermoso told dzMM.
Meanwhile, at least two soldiers were slightly wounded during the military operation to neutralize members of the BIFF, a renegade faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Founded in 2008 by Ameril Umbra Kato, the BIFF is opposing the peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama denied that his group suffered casualties. He said only two BIFF guerillas were wounded.
"Of course, there will be denial on their part but government forces are doing this factual verification on the ground together with the barangay officials," Hermoso said.
He said joint police and military forces were tasked to serve arrest warrants to the guerrillas. In an earlier interview with Agence France-Presse, Hermoso said about 25 BIFF leaders were the subject of the arrest warrants.
The military official said the arrest warrants were in connection with the extortion activities of the BIFF, the beheading of a farmer, and the abduction of teachers, all in North Cotabato, among others.
Hermoso said the BIFF was also behind the planting of an improvised explosive device (IED) at a road in Barangay Nabalawag in Midsayap, North Cotabato where a military truck was expected to pass by.
The IED exploded, but no one was wounded among the soldiers who are members of the 40th Infantry Battalion.
Meanwhile, Hermoso clarified that the law enforcement operations are not connected with the conclusion of the negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine government.
Last Saturday, the MILF and government peace panels signed the fourth and final annex to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), paving the way for the the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
"It was just a coincidence. It has no bearing. If you remember, the BIFF launched an attack last September in Midsayap [in North Cotabato] where 12 civilians were killed, one of whom was beheaded," he said.
Hermoso, meanwhile, said the shootings subsided on Monday afternoon, but sporadic clashes were still happening.
He added that the breakaway group's leader, Ameril Umbra Kato, is reportedly no longer able to give orders to his men due to his illness.
Hermoso said the Army is targeting to finish the offensive operation by tomorrow.
He said the Army coordinated with the MILF and local government units for the evacuation of an estimated 2,000 families who risk getting caught in the crossfire, and to prevent violence from spilling over into other areas.
Most of the evacuees sought refuge in the houses of their relatives, while some stayed in a "madrasah"(Islamic educational institution) in Datu Piang.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) government is already preparing the relief goods for the internally displaced persons. – with a report from Albashir Saiden, ABS-CBN News Central Mindanao