MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — Government troops on Saturday drove away about 20 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) who stormed the town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao.
The Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division Commander, Maj. Gen. Juvymax Uy, confirmed that the military launched an operation in the area on Friday after receiving reports about the presence of BIFF members.
“Kagabi ay nag-launch kami ng operasyon sa Datu Paglas, kasunod ng report ng presensiya ng BIFF sa bayan. Karugtong ito ng ating ginagawang operasyon sa SPMS box, halos isang linggo nang nagkakaroon ng encounter ang ating military at local terrorists,” said Uy.
(Last night, we launched an operation in Datu Paglas following reports on the presence of BIFF in the town. This is part of our operation in SPMS (Shariff Aguak, Pagatin, Mamasapano and Shariff Saydona) box where encounters between the military and local terrorists have been happening for almost a week.)
But Datu Paglas Vice Mayor Mohammad Paglas clarified that only 20 BIFF members stormed the area, not 100 as earlier reported.
Paglas said the earlier number was provided to him by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) national guards.
"'Yung 100 na yan, sabi ng national guard ng MILF sa akin na darating sa Paglas," he said.
"Itong final, ito sa municipal hall, ang sabi nasa 20 lang pala sila. Itong nakaatras na sila, nasa 20 na lang daw."
(The initial estimate was provided by the MILF national guards. But the final count from the municipal hall said there were 20 BIFFs. When they retreated, it was found out they were 20.)
Uy confirmed that BIFF members occupied the public market in Datu Paglas.
“Kasama 'yan sa ating ginagampanang tungkulin kung saan ay ayon sa utos ng ating Presidente Rodrigo Roa Duterte na matapos itong local terrorist problem sa kanyang termino,” Uy said.
(That is part of our mandate, based on President Duterte’s order to end local terrorist problem during his term.)
Paglas earlier said that the group has been resting in the area when the military monitored them.
"Pumasok ang grupo nila dito sa palengke pati sa Gawad Kalinga na residential house ng sibilyan. Wala naman silang hinostage na mga tao, nakipagbakbakan na lang sila sa military," said Paglas.
(The group entered the wet market and even the Gawad Kalinga housing for civilians. They did not take anyone hostage but engaged in a firefight with the military.)
The town has gone back to normal as of Sunday morning, said Lt Col John Paul Baldomar, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division.
"Ang sitwasyon po ngayon dito sa Datu Paglas ay balik na sa normal. Ang ating palengke ay nagbukas na kanina," he told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
(The situation here in Datu Paglas has gone back to normal. The public market opened earlier.)
Stranded civilians were told to go home when the clash started. Videos captured from a road, meanwhile, showed residents fleeing to safety as armored personnel carrier rolled into town.
Resident Norhaina Pangilayan said it was the BIFF group who advised them to leave the area.
“Yung mga Freedom, pinalikas na 'yung mga tao. Kasi 'baka madamay kayo' sabi nila. So ang mga tao, nakaalis na. Bago pa dumating mga sundalo, wala ng tao sa loob,” said Pangilayan.
(The [rebels] told people to leave so they won't be caught in the crossfire. So the people have already left even before the soldiers came.)
Saturday’s firefight lasted for more than an hour before the military regained control of the area.
The military assured that no soldier nor civilian was hurt, and that no property was damaged in the clash.
“Kailangan kasi natin na i-clear muna ang area dahil may nakitang IED sa lugar ngayong humupa na ang sitwasyon” he said.
(Now that the situation has subsided, we still need to clear the area because an IED was spotted there.)
The BIFF group encountered by the military was under Commander Karialan.
The neighboring town of Buluan enforced a temporary lockdown due to the encounter, according to Mayor Dhats Mangudadatu in an announcement on his Facebook page.
"No movement muna po until the situation is in control as will be announced by our PNP and AFP personnel," said Mangudadatu.
Authorities have yet to said if there were casualties from the encounter.
The BIFF is a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which earlier brokered peace with government and is in the process of transition into self-governance in the Bangsamoro region.
— With reports from Lerio Bompat and Chrislen Bulosan