MAGUINDANAO ---- Children, elderly women, and pregnant and lactating mothers comprise about 50 percent of the 25,650 Muslim villagers displaced by the attacks by marauding bandits belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), which started just before midnight Sunday with their simultaneous harassment of Army detachments and command posts in five Maguindanao towns.
A farmer, Esmael Abdullah, was killed while two others, Musa Makmud and Tamano Kalantungan, were injured in an explosion in Datu Unsay town on Tuesday as the encounters between soldiers and BIFM guerrillas went on.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front said in its news website that Abdullah and his wounded companions were in an evacuation site when hit by an explosive projectile fired by soldiers intended to land on an enemy position.
Col. Mayoralgo dela Cruz, commander of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade based in Barangay Salbu in Datu Saudi town, told reporters they have no information on insinuations about an accidental shelling of an evacuation site.
Four soldiers, Sgt. Sonny Estabillo, Pvt. Daniel Aragon, Pfc. Arsenio Nunescan, and Pfc. Henry Caunga, perished in the initial attacks by the BIFM, according to Loreto Rirao, director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
On Wednesday, BIFM bandits, using a powerful roadside bomb, tried but failed to prevent while in Shariff Aguak, a convoy of 10 trucks carrying soldiers bound for Datu Hofer town, also in Maguindanao.
Datu Hofer town is surrounded by hills which the military can use as springboard for its counter-offensives against the group.
The IED fashioned from live 81 MM mortar rounds rigged with a trip wire attached to a contraption designed to trigger it off, exploded and injured one soldier in the convoy.
The injured soldier, Cpl. Joseph Primavera of the 68th Infantry Battalion, who sustained superficial shrapnel wounds, was rushed to a nearby government dispensary for medication.
Physician Tahir Sulaik, chief of the Maguindanao Integrated Provincial Health Office based in Shariff Aguak, said they have listed more than a thousand families from the areas the bandits attacked, in continuing spate of clandestine maneuvers that began shortly before Sunday midnight.
A team of health and social workers led by acting ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman tried to deliver relief goods to Datu Saudi, from where the provisions can be transported to the areas that are under siege and where ethnic Tedurays and Maguindanaons dwell.
The group, however, balked and returned to Cotabato City when the bandits came close to a route of the convoy carrying the supplies.
Hataman, presiding chairman of the ARMM’s Regional Peace and Order Council, said he will tap the help of religious leaders and llocal government units in the affected towns to help in the shipment of relief goods to residents who are surrounded by the marauding BIFM forces.
Alim Bandara, a senior member of Maguindanao’s council of non-Muslim tribal leaders, said many villagers at Hill 224 are also reluctant to leave, worried followers of the BIFM’s chieftain, Ameril Ombra Kato, can take over their farms once they relocate to evacuation sites at safer areas along the Cotabato-General Santos Highway.
The spokesman of the BIFM, Abu Misry Mama, announced over Catholic station dxMS in Cotabato City that the attacks were in retaliation for the death of a fighter named Mohammad during what he asserted as an “uncoordinated” Army incursion into their enclave at Hill 224, at the tri-boundary of Guindulungan, Datu Saudi and Datu Unsay towns last June 21.
“The attacks we initiated were only ‘hit-and- run’. We were provoked to initiate these maneuvers by the June 21 incident. We warned the military of the repercussions of that incident through dxMS after that fateful day,” Mama said.
He said the attacks were also in retaliation for the intrusion by the combatants of the Army Special Forces and militiamen last July 26 in Barangay Kabembeng in Sumisip in Basilan, which left 10 soldiers and nine Abu Sayyaf bandits dead.
“Those fighters killed in that encounter in Basilan were not Abu Sayyaf bandits, they belonged to the BIFM. The military keeps on asserting that they were Abu Sayyaf bandits. No, they were not. They were members of our group,” Mama said.
The BIFM was launced by Kato, an ethnic Maguindanaon cleric who studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos, after he was booted out as chief of the MILF’s 105th Base Command in early 2012 for leading bloody attacks on farming villages in Maguindanao and North Cotabato following the aborted August 5, 2008 crafting of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.
Kato was thrice prodded last year by the MILF to disband his self-styled BIFM and rejoin his former group, but declined and even announced over station dxMS that he could no longer fuse ranks with a group that has given up the bid of Moro communities for an independent Islamic state, for a “menial” form of autonomous Muslim government under the sovereignty of the Philippine Republic.
Kato last hogged the headlines when he suffered a stroke in October 2011 after a long hike from one BIFM enclave to another in Guindulungan, which paralyzed half of his body. He was said to have recuperated with the help of a Maranaw physician who treated him clandestinely.
Evacuees displaced by Monday’s simultaneous attacks by the BIFM are bitter on the bandit group. Some of them even want the Darul Iftah to immediately issue a fatwah (edict) excommunicating the BIFM and denouncing its acts which are contrary to Islamic faith.
Central Mindanao’s Darul Iftah, or House of Opinions, is the highest Islamic congregation that wields unquestionable influence and ministerial control over Islamic missionaries and religious organizations in the region.
Ghadzali Jaafar, the vice-chairman for political affairs of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said not a single MILF guerrilla participated in any of the attacks.
Jaafar said the MILF has long outlawed Kato and even branded him, in a written resolution, as “bughaat,” an Arabic term that contextually means either recalcitrant, or stubborn, or abusive.
“There is no wisdom either in the assertion by the BIFM that it’s waging a jihad (holy war) because jihad is something that is not meant to give misery to civilians. It cannot be waged for purposes of retaliation either,” Jaafar announced over Catholic station dxMS.
Hataman said the inter-agency Regional Peace and Order Council is saddened with the acts of the BIFM, perpetrated at the backdrop of the supposedly solemn observance by Muslims in Maguindanao of the 30-day Islamic Ramadhan.
“Isn’t Ramadhan a holy month? It’s so sad that all of these tragic events happened during the Ramadhan, dislocating thousands of Muslims who are supposedly fasting at daytime in their homes during the entire period of the fasting month,” Hataman said.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace pact with the national government on September 2, 1996, said while the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police ought to address the peace and security issues in Maguindanao according to constitutional mandates, both need to investigate deeper on the reasons why the BIFM staged the attacks.
The chairman of the largest of three factions in the MNLF, Cotabato City Vice-Mayor Muslimin Sema, told reporters via text message that what is bothering for them is the dislocation of thousands of Muslim villagers who were driven from their homes by the hostilities.
“The situation can be likened to a lingering disease. It is something that has to be treated with the right, most appropriate medicine based on a thorough examination and a very good, clear prognosis,” Sema said. (JOHN M. UNSON)