Army goes for the kill

Endgame. Soldiers patrol a village near Datu Piang town in Maguindanao in a clearing operation against the militants opposed to the government’s peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

MANILA — The military on Thursday gave itself 72 hours to ‘decimate’ the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters even as Malacanang warned the Moro National Liberation Front-Nur Misuari faction against coddling members of the renegade group.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Batallion, said the 72-hour deadline was approved by the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which he said gave the go-signal to the military to crush the BIFF for good.

“Hindi tantanan, hindi hintuan (operation) dahil ‘yung mismong MILF din ang nagre-request na tapusin ‘yung BIFF para wala silang problema later on,” said Hermoso.

(We will not stop our operation because the MILF itself has requested us to finish the BIFF for good so they will have no problem with them later on.)

The clashes, which started Sunday, had so far killed 41 BIFF members and wounded 12. The government side, on the other hand, lost one soldier, while 13 others were wounded.

The extension was agreed upon by the military and MILF’s Adhoc Joint Action Group (AJAG), as government troops pursued BIFF forces seen seeking shelter in the Reina Regenta Mountain located in the tri-boundary of Datu Piang and Sharif Saydona Mustapha, both in Maguindanao and Pikit, North Cotabato.

Hermoso said the AJAG may approve a second extension if necessary.

Malacañang, meanwhile, aired the warning to the MNLF after its spokesman Absalom Cerveza called on the military to stop its offensive, “or we will have war.”

On Wednesday, Cerveza claimed that government forces attacked MNLF camps in Bgy. Bakat in Datu Piang and in Saydona Mustapha, both in Maguindanao.

But Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Sonny Coloma said the operations were not meant to discriminate against the MNLF.

“There is no intention to discriminate against any particular sector…We are just protecting the gains of the peace process from potential spoilers,” Coloma said.

At the same time, Malacanang appealed to the BIFF to lay down their arms and ‘return to their normal lives.’

“While there will be no let-up in the military offensive, the government has also offered the possibility of a “return to their normal lives” – short of an outright amnesty offer – for BIFF fighters who would surrender their arms.

“We call on the members and the leaders of the BIFF to put down their arms and be part of the process. We ask them to listen to the plea of their own brothers and sisters to give peace a chance,” government chief negotiator Miriam Ferrer said.

“Local government officials are ready to receive those who would like to silence their guns and participate in the different programs we will be undertaking as part of the implementation of the peace agreements. We know that BIFF members can also contact supporters or local ground commanders of the MILF who could facilitate their return to normal lives,” added Ferrer.

The BIFF, believed to have 250 fighters, is a breakaway faction of the MILF led by Ameril Umbra Kato.

In 2012, the MILF Central Committee expelled Kato from the organization for rejecting the peace talks. Months later, he led several attacks against civilian communities, killing innocent civilians in Central Mindanao.

The encounters started a day after the government and the MILF signed the ‘normalization” annex in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. It was the last of four annexes which would now pave the way for the creation of a Bangsamoro entity in Muslim Mindanao.

On Wednesday, President Benigno Aquino III ordered the military to crush the BIFF and other ‘peace spoilers.’

Cerveza, however, described the president as ‘reckless’ in making the statement.

“We will be pushed into turmoil and who will be sorry at the end of the day?” Cerveza said.

He added that the ongoing clashes in Maguindano and parts of North Cotabato between the BIFF and the military and some MNLF members who were dragged in the clashes will determine the course of action by the MNLF.

Hermoso, meanwhile, said the MILF fighters had been supporting government troops by not allowing retreating BIFF fighters to take refuge in MILF-controlled territories.

“We’re employing right now three battalions under the 601st Infantry Brigade, at least more than 1,500 soldiers excluding attached forces such as mechanized units,” he said.

Hermoso said sporadic fighting continues within Reina Rgenta Mountain where the BIFF had well-entrenched positions.

He also dismissed rumors that fighters from the MNLF-Nur Misuari faction, were joining the BIFF in the battles.

“May community rin [ang MNLF) kaya lang sa may Midsayap, North Cotabato. Kausap din namin sila dahil nag-close coordination din kami sa kanila at nangako sila na hindi sila susuporta o makipag-alliance. Kaso nga lang ‘yung ibang hanay, ‘yung ibang myembro nila may mga relatives dun (BIFF). Hindi naman nila sinabing we join them, independent acts ng ibang member, pero definitely as an institution hindi sila sumali,” he said.

(The MNLF community has its own community in Midsayap, North Cotabato. We have talked to them because we are closely coordinating with them and they promised that they would support or allied with the BIFF. But some of them have relatives within the BIFF. They did not say they would join as a group, only some of their members who have relatives in the BIFF, but as a group, they had no plans of joining).

Hermoso, however admitted that they were receiving reports of “continuous meetings” of some MNLF members loyal to Misuari but has yet to monitor any movement to reinforce the BIFF.

“It’s not remote (possible Misuari-led MNLF-BIFF merger) dahil may mga reports but we need to validate it. But it’s a good thing some MNLF groups were also blocking BIFF fighters to enter their community just like what the MILF was doing,” Hermoso said.

Hermoso said the military has overran some of the BIFF’s temporary camps, forcing the renegade group to splinter into small groups.

But he said the military is already familiar with the group’s guerilla tactics, especially the elite units such as the Scout Ranger, Special Forces and the police’s Special Action Force who are tasked to conduct relentless pursuit operations while infantry soldiers are focused on conducting offensives and capture BIFF lairs.

On Monday, the military deployed at least three battalions or more than 1,500 soldiers to provide support for the local police in going after the BIFF following a series of ambush conducted by the group against soldiers and policemen who were supposed to issue arrest warrants last Sunday against some BIFF elements.