10,000 flee as fighting continues
MANILA (UPDATED) -- The death toll in the fighting between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has reached 53, with 52 others wounded, the military said on Thursday night.
A soldier died in the skirmishes and 13 others were wounded as a result of an improvised explosive device believed to have been placed by the Moro rebels.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army's 6th Infantry Division said 12 of the 52 slain gunmen have already been identified. Some of the slain rebels were already found buried.
"The troops came across some freshly buried bodies. We did not dig them out in deference to the religious sensitivities of our Muslim brothers," he said.
As the clashes continued on its fourth day, the military said some of the casualties from the rebels are minors.
"There is. We verified that, unfortunately, wala kaming magagawa dahil they are also carrying firearms and shooting the soldiers and the policemen, " he added.
Hermoso said at least 3 child rebel soldiers were killed in the clashes.
"Merong mga around three below the age of puberty we esrimated their ages are around 15 or 16," Hermoso said.
"We strongly denounce this, the use of child soldiers by the BIFF, that is a gross violation of the international humanitarian law," Hermoso added.
The fighting also displaced at least 10,000 residents in conflict-affected areas.
Hermoso said government troops have dismantled the strongholds of the BIFF in Barangays Ganta and Bakat in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, Maguindanao.
"We were able to dismantle their camp which houses a training site and an explosives manufacturing site," Hermoso told dzMM.
The fighting started after the military launched an operation to neutralize forces out to spoil the peace talks between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Hermoso said the BIFF forces, a group which broke away from the mainstream MILF in 2008 and is opposed to the peace process, have also been contained in Maguindanao.
"We are on standby in Barangay Ganta. They would not be able to cross the river leading to Pikit, North Cotabato," he said.
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 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 offensive operation, initially meant to last for three days, have been extended for three more days with the approval of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, a cooperative mechanism between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that responds to criminality and terrorism in areas with MILF presence.
The offensive operation was launched just as the Philippine government and MILF 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. – with reports from Albashir Saiden, ABS-CBN News Central Mindanao; Dharel Placido, ABS-CBNnews.com; and Agence France-Presse