Military calls North Cotabato BIFF attack an 'opportunistic' act of 'harassment'
MANILA – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Wednesday assured the public that there has been no spillover of the Marawi crisis to other areas following the attack of Islamist militants in North Cotabato.
AFP Spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr. said the attack of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) at a Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (BPAT) outpost in Barangay Simsiman, Pigcawayan town and a school in Barangay Malagakit could not be considered a spillover of the Marawi violence but merely an act of harassment.
Padilla said there were no indications that the BIFF elements who launched the attack in Pigcawayan came from conflict-stricken city of Marawi, located some 190 kilometers away.
Clashes between government forces and Islamic State-linked terror groups in Marawi City has raged on for nearly a month.
“Ito ba’y nanggaling doon sa loob ng Marawi? Hindi. Galing sa ibang lugar na noong araw pa eh patuloy na nang-ha-harass... naninira, nang-aatake ng mga outpost natin kasi nandiyan sila mga armado ‘to,” Padilla said in a news conference in Malacañang.
More than 100 Islamist militants stormed a school in Pigcawayan early Wednesday and reportedly held several students hostage.
The crisis started after BIFF members harassed the peacekeeping team of Barangay Malagakit and a security outpost in Barangay Simsiman, the military said.
The BIFF fighters have also took over a school in Barangay Malagakit, according to Chief Inspector Realan Mamon, Pigcawayan police director.
Leading the BIFF forces were commanders Abunawas Damiog alias Bayawak, Abu Zaiden, and a certain Sala.
According to Padilla, the BIFF members have already withdrawn after being engaged by government troops in a gun battle.
“Ito pong ginawa ng BIFF ay isang opportunistic activity. Nakita nila na may pagkakataon so ipinamalas nila ‘yung kanilang kakayahan na kaya nilang gawin ito. Pero sa mabuting palad, hindi nila matagumpay na nagawa ito,” he said.
Padilla said the situation could have been worse if the militants launched their attack during school hours. He, however, confirmed that at least five persons were used as human shields by the withdrawing militants.
“[The] troops that have responded quickly to this incident are now on the pursuit mode. So we are just ascertaining if they have released around five civilians that they have held,” he said.
Padilla said while some BIFF members were fighting with the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups in Marawi City, the attack in Pigcawayan could not be considered a diversionary tactic or another attempt to take control of a province.
“It’s too small an effort. It was just a harassment case,” he said.
“[By] and large, these [acts of] harassment have been ongoing even before this Marawi incident,” Padilla said.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been considered as the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
On May 23, a group led by Maute brothers Omar and Abdullah and Abu Sayyaf Group senior leader Isnilon Hapilon, considered ISIS’ point person in Southeast Asia, laid siege to Marawi, a once vibrant city located at the heart of mainland Mindanao and is home to about 200,000 people.
The crisis prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the entire Mindanao, saying the Philippines was now at the crosshairs of the ISIS, which wants to establish a province in the Philippines as part of its caliphate in Southeast Asia.
The rise of pro-ISIS groups in the country has raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.
The government said at least 268 suspected terrorists have been killed since the clashes erupted almost a month ago. The government has lost 66 of its men while civilian casualties remain at 26.
The military, meanwhile, said some 500 civilians, including potential hostages, remained trapped in the battle zone.