Soldiers overrun BIFF camps, kill 53 rebels

MANILA — The military on Friday pressed its assaults on Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ strongholds, as it ran over the renegade group’s camps, while inflicting more deaths on the BIFF’s side with mortar fire and air strikes.

Military reports said the assault – part of the joint military’s and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s agreed 72-hour time frame, had so far killed 53 BIFF members, including a suspected commander identified as Hassan Indal, also known as “Tambako,” reportedly a trusted deputy of BIFF founder Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said Indal was killed during an air strike while inside a makeshift camp at a BIFF headquarters in Barangay Ganta, Shariff Saydona Mustapha on Thursday.

Hermoso said other than the makeshift camp in Bgy. Ganta, the soldiers also overran a BIFF stronghold in Bgy. Bakat located at the tri-boundary of Shariff Saydona Mustapha in Maguindanao and Pikit, North Cotabato.

The military’s offensive is now focused on the mountain ranges of Reina Regente along the tri-boundary, where the BIFF rebels had holed up.

The government side had so far lost one soldier, but the number of wounded on its side rose to 14. The BIFF, on the other hand, has 48 wounded fighters after five days of fighting.

“Hanggang maubos sila (BIFF). As long as they pose a threat to the community, to the innocent civilians in the area, we will pursue them,” Hermoso said.

Hermoso said among those killed during the clashes were as many as 13 ‘child warriors.’

“They are employing child soldiers with guns and camouflage uniforms. When we encounter them, we cannot discriminate if they are children or not,” Hermoso said.

He added that soldiers and local residents confirmed that at least three child soldiers were among the rebels buried soon after their deaths, according to Islamic custom.

The website of the UN special representative on children and armed conflict said that it “continued to receive credible reports that the (BIFF) armed group was actively training and providing weapons to children”.

The military, however, claimed that Commission on Human Rights chairperson Loreta Ann Rosales has yet to act on its report on child soldiers, even as the BIFF had admitted that it recruited “child soldiers” to fight with them in the clashes against government forces.

BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama, however, disputed Hermoso’s report on child warriors and said only BIFF combatants were killed so far since the fighting started.

Mama also denied the military’s claim that the BIFF only had 250 fighters, saying that the rebel group has more than 1,000 members.

He also belied reports that the military had decimated their camps, adding that it was an MNLF camp that was hit by the rockets.

MNLF overall commander Bensaleh Sharifah backed Mama’s claim, saying that the military attacked their camp, but added that it was only an ‘open camp’ since the main camp was in the middle of the mountain.

“Hindi nila napasok yun,” Sharifah said.

Mama, however, said the BIFF has no plans of retreating despite the military’s major offensive.

“We will fight up to the last drop of our blood,” Mama was quoted as saying.

MNLF spokesman Absalom Cerveza, meanwhile, branded the military operations against the BIFF as improper, saying that the military has no law enforcement powers to arrest rebels facing criminal offense.

Cerveza said the supposed police law enforcement action against a number of BIFF members facing warrants was converted into a military action, which he described as inappropriate.

The police action was directed particularly against BIFF leader Ameril Umbra Kato, who is facing a series of criminal charges in North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

“How can the military implement a law enforcement operations when they had no power to do it” It should be the police that should do this,” Cerveza said.

Cerveza said the BIFF “is an organized movement fighting for the establishment of a separate republic,” which he said was a ‘political matter.’

“What the authorities can do is to make negotiations on Kato, a protocol normally observed to be able to resolve certain problems.”

“Hindi gawain yan ng sundalo,” Cerveza said. ‘It is the duty of the police to serve a warrant of arrest against law offenders.”

Meanwhile, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said that aside from destroying rebel camps, the soldiers also seized a   BIFF bomb-making factory located in remote villages near the camps.

“Our objective is to curb the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) so as to protect the people and the community and protect the peace process because by doing (these bombings), they are spoiling the peace process,” Zagala said.

He confirmed that the MILF had cooperated in the operations against the BIFF by holding back their own forces and not letting the hardliners seek refuge in MILF territory.

As this developed, the military said it is coordinating with the mayors in the affected provinces to provide medical assistance to the relatives of the 12 wounded BIFF men for humanitarian consideration.