MANILA – The number of members of renegade group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) killed in a military operation in Mindanao has risen to 37, a Philippine Army official confirmed Wednesday.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said more rebels were killed as clashes erupted anew in parts of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, in an attempt by the government to neutralize forces out to derail the peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Hermoso said the peak of the fighting occurred between 9 p.m. on Tuesday and 1 a.m. today in Dumabalas, Datu Piang town.
He said a soldier died while seven others were wounded when an improvised explosive device (IED) belived to planted by the renegade group went off.
The military official said the BIFF, a group of rebels led by Ameril Umbra Kato which severed ties with the mainstream MILF in 2008, has splintered into smaller groups to avoid more casualties.
Hermoso earlier said the police and military personnel were tasked to serve arrest warrants against leaders of the BIFF in connection with several atrocities that the rebel group committed in the south.
The joint operation was launched last Monday in BIFF strongholds in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Datu Piang, Sultan sa Barongis and Datu Salibo in Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato.
Hermoso 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.
With sporadic firefights still occurring, Hermoso said three more days are needed before the displaced families can be allowed to go back to their respective homes.
Hermoso had also 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. The peace accord would give Muslims a large degree of autonomy in the south, including control of much of the region's natural resources.
The MILF has been leading a rebellion in the southern Philippines since the 1970s aimed at winning independence or autonomy for the country's Muslim minority in Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland.
About 150,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict.
The peace accord is expected to be signed within weeks and President Benigno Aquino is aiming for it to be fully implemented before he steps down in mid-2016.
However it must still clear other hurdles, including congressional approval and a regional plebiscite, as well as the opposition of smaller rebel groups such as the BIFF. – report from Edwin Sevidal, dzMM; with Agence France-Presse