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Thousands flee fighting between military and BIFF in North Cotabato

Residents of Aleosan town flee to safety on the second day of offensives launched by BIFF fighters. FERDZ BALLENTES,
The online news portal of TV5

COTABATO CITY, Philippines - (UPDATE 9:54PM) Thousands of residents of three villages in Aleosan and Pikit towns, both in North Cotabato, have been fleeing their homes since Friday night, when government forces mounted an offensive against rebels from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters who attacked a military camp. In a clash Saturday, three bandits were killed and two soldiers wounded.

Fighting, reportedly involving hundreds of BIFF fighters, continues to rage as of this posting, a day after Eid'l Fitir, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“At the moment, continuous exchange of fire could be heard in (the villages of) Lagundi, Pagangan and Nalapaan,” Lieutenant Colonel Donald Gumiran, commanding officer of 40th Infantry Battalion, said.

Later on Saturday, the Philippines News Agency, quoting authorities in Cotabato said three Moro bandits were killed and two soldiers wounded in a clash Saturday after Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked an Army detachment in the borders of Maguindanao and North Cotabato.The hostilities were triggered by the BIFF attack on a camp in Tubak village, Aleosan.

The BIFF is a rebel group that broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in peace talks with the government.

Gumiran said villagers from Pagangan in Aleosan and from Nalapaan and Bualan in Pkit had evacuated near the national highway.

Peace advocate Fr. Bert Layson said he and other local monitors are keeping close watch on the military operation, which he described as having the clearance of the MILF.

"Military officials and local MILF commanders, in the spirit of (the) peace accord, are closely coordinating (with) each other, avoiding misencounters. We pray this will not worsen as time goes on," Layson said.

Early last month, BIFF forces also launched simultaneous attacks and IED blasts in Pikit and several towns in Maguindanao that left scores dead and wounded.

Meanwhile, in Maguindanao, adjacent to North Cotabato, a roadside bomb went off in the town of North Upi, but caused no casualties.

Following the blast, another improvised explosive device and two grenades were found in Sitio Payong-payong, Barangay Kibleg, the same village where the explosion happened.

The highway linking North Upi to Cotabato City has been temporarily closed to allow security forces to conduct clearing operations.

It was not clear whether the North Upi blast was related to the fighting in Pikit and Aleosan, although the BIFF has, since last month, owned responsibility for several bombings in Maguindanao, including a roadside attack earlier this week that left seven soldiers wounded in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town.

On August 5, a powerful car bomb was set off in Cotabato City, killing eight people and wounding at least 30 others.

Although no one has claimed responsibility, Cotabato Mayor Japal Guiani Jr. has accused criminal syndicates linked to politicians of targeting him and his sister, city administrator Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, who had passed by the site of the explosion in a bulletproof van just seconds before the bomb went off. Two of her bodyguards were among the dead.

The Cotabato blast happened 10 days after another bombings in Cagayan de Oro City killed eight people and wounded more than 40 others.

North Upi Mayor Ramon Piang, who is also a member of the government panel in peace talks with the MILF, would only say that “some groups” were “sowing terror” by “riding (on) the situation of terror attacks in Central Mindanao.”