NORTH COTABATO - More than 100 militants stormed a school in Pigcawayan town in this province early on Wednesday and are holding several students hostage, police said, on the same island where fighting between government troops and Islamists has entered its fifth week.
The crisis started after members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters harassed the peacekeeping team of Barangay Malagakit and a Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) detachment in Barangay Simsiman, the military said.
Gunfights between the rebels and state troops are raging in 3 Pigcawayan areas as of this posting, the military said.
The BIFF fighters have also taken over a school in Barangay Malagakit, according to Chief Inspector Realan Mamon, director of Pigcawayan police.
"We can confirm that they occupied a school and there were civilians trapped. We are in the process of determining how many were trapped and their identities," Mamon said in a radio interview.
Leading the BIFF forces are commanders Abunawas Damiog alias Bayawak, Abu Zaiden and a certain Sala.
In a separate interview, Pigcawayan Mayor Eliseo Garsesa said there could be as many as 200 rebels in the town.
"Sa intelligence report na lumalabas kagabi from our military personnel, umaabot na 200. We identified the group to be members of the BIFF," Garsesa told radio DZMM.
He admitted that local officials received reports of a possible attack as early as two weeks ago.
"During the past weeks, may mga haka-haka nang ganito... Ang ginagawa namin sa aming munisipyo buong gabi ay pinapalabas ang mga residente ng Malagakit at neighboring barangay, most especially the women, the old people and the children," he said.
"Dito sila pinatutulog sa aming evacuation center sa center ng municipality. The following morning, pinabalik sila to continue with their farming activities."
(Speculations of an attack have circulated during the past weeks. What we did was evacuate the residents of Malagakit and neighboring villages every night, especially the women, elderly and the children.)
(We made them sleep in the evacuation center in the town center. They returned to their farming activities in the mornings.)
The mayor said he was still seeking information about possible casualties.
RESIDENTS FLEE VIOLENCE
The police said they have received reports of residents fleeing to the town's Poblacion area due to the ongoing firefight in the village.
Pigcawayan lies 190 kilometers south of Marawi City, where BIFF militants, along with fighters from other groups allied to the Islamic State group, have been holed up and fighting the Philippines military for more than a month.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said 40 militants from the BIFF and the Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines have joined forces with Maute terrorists locked in battle with government troops in Marawi City.
Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesperson of the Joint Task Force Marawi, said many of the outsiders came to Marawi using the cover of an Islamic prayer festival in the city last month.
The seizing of the city by Maute and its allies on the island of Mindanao is the biggest warning yet that the Islamic State is building a base in Southeast Asia and bringing the brutal tactics seen in Iraq and Syria in recent years to the region.
Defense and other government officials from within the region told Reuters evidence is mounting that this was a sophisticated plot to bring forces from different groups who support the Islamic State together to take control of Marawi. -- With Arianne Apatan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters