4 soldiers, 4 gunmen killed in clashes
MANILA (4th UPDATE) - At least 8 people have been killed in clashes between government troops and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) gunmen, who attacked Midsayap, North Cotabato on Monday.
Four soldiers were killed while residents reported seeing 4 dead BIFF guerillas being carried away by their comrades, regional Army spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
The rebels then took 15 schoolteachers and farmers to use as human shields against pursuit although all of them were later freed, Hermoso said.
More than 150 members of the BIFF launched the attack.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Missry Mama claimed responsibility for the incident, which started at around 2 a.m..
Senior Superintendent Renante delos Santos, the chief of police there, said the breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) moved towards the municipality center at around 7 a.m.
The group, allegedly led by a certain commander DM and commander Abas Kudanding, also supposedly harassed residents of nearby barangays in Malingao and Polomogen.
The military initially reported that the armed group held hostage only three school teachers of the Malingao Elementary School. They also supposedly confiscated their personal belongings, including cellphones.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda confirmed that BIFF men released one of the teachers while keeping four more hostages.
He said AFP spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala gave an update that a firefight between the military and alleged BIFF members has stopped.
“Meron pong apat na hostages po. Ang nangyari po doon… may negotiations taking place right now according to Lt. Col. Zagala and doon po sa apat na hostages, isa po ay na-release na po. ‘Yung isang guro ay na-release na po… The negotiations done by the barangay chairman… Negotiations are underway. Wala na pong firefight ngayon doon,” Lacierda said.
In a statement, however, the Philippine National Police Public Information Office said 12 teachers and 50 pupils were trapped – not taken hostage – in the ongoing firefight between the BIFF and government forces.
The statement quoted Esmael Tamalla, Malingao barangay captain, as saying that the teachers and pupils hid inside their rooms for safety during the firefight.
“[The local government] is now exerting efforts to fetch the teachers and pupils and bring them to safety. Another place of encounter though is Brgy Tugal, where there are no PNP elements in the area there now, only Army troops. Hence, we cannot confirm any development from that part,” the PNP said.
Delos Santos said the area is a known turf of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) although leaders of the MNLF have distanced themselves from the incident. They said they do not have control over the BIFF.
Asked if the attack has something to do with the BIFF’s frustration over the peace talks, North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Taliño-Mendez told ANC there are a lot of issues that could have triggered the incident.
Nonetheless, she said the local government has been implementing “localized approaches” for peace initiatives with the rebels.
Classes have already been suspended there.
The fighting in the center of Mindanao island came as a standoff with the MNLF in Zamboanga City entered its third week.
Both Hermoso and BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama said the latest fighting was not related to Zamboanga crisis.
"This has nothing to do with the Zamboanga incident. That is different. Our enemies are the military. We want them out," Mama told radio station DXMS.
Both the MNLF faction of rebel chief Nur Misuari and the BIFF oppose ongoing government peace talks with the largest Moro rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Moro rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict. – from reports by Dexter Ganibe, dzMM; Lerio Bompat, ABS-CBN News Cotabato; AFP