Friday, June 23, 2017

Philippines: Hundreds more displaced as new group attacks different part of Mindanao

Residents who want to evacuate from their homes gather while waiting for a vehicle after Islamist militants, who had holed up in a primary school, retreated after a gunbattle with troops but were holding some civilians hostage, in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, Philippines June 21, 2017. Source: Reuters/Marconi Navales

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AT LEAST 100 gunmen from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another Islamic State (IS) offshoot in the Philippines, tried but failed to take control of villages in another part of Mindanao on Wednesday, amid the continuing crisis in Marawi.
The fresh fighting in the town of Pigcawayan in North Cotabato province, 190 kilometers south of Marawi however displaced hundreds of families and affected classes in 14 primary and secondary schools, officials said Thursday.
“Gun fires have subsided today but our displaced civilians remained in various evacuation centers pending clearance from the military and police for them to return home,” Jezler Garcesa, spokesperson of the crisis management committee of the Pigcawayan local government unit, told Asian Correspondent.

“Their needs like food are being appropriately addressed by the local and provincial governments. Medical teams were deployed to the evacuation centers. It is unfortunate that our people have to suffer from another conflict,” he added.
Contrary to reports that the BIFF members took 31 hostages in the interior villages of Pigcawayan, Garcesa said the civilians were trapped in the fire fight and were afraid to get out.
“They are now safe and staying at the evacuation centers,” Garcesa said.
The official said around 1,400 individuals from 312 families have sought refuge in at least six evacuation centers in different areas in the town.
Omar Obas, schools division superintendent in North Cotabato province, said classes in 14 schools in the interior villages of the town were immediately suspended due to the fire fight between government forces and BIFF members.
“The suspension of classes affected at least 4,034 elementary and secondary school students,” he told Asian Correspondent separately.
Classes will resume upon the advice of the local government unit, he added.
Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, stressed the attack in Pigcawayan town was not a spillover of the conflict in Marawi, which has displaced around 200,000 civilians, according to latest data from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
A rescued resident points to the picture of one of the insurgent Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, Philippines June 21, 2017. Source: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
“The BIFF has been harassing our forces there even before the Marawi siege staged by the Maute Group happened,” Padilla said during the Mindanao Hour program broadcast on state television PTV-4.
The fighting in Marawi between government troops and the Maute Group is ongoing for almost a month now.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Mindanao island under martial law on May 23, hours after clashes erupted in Marawi. Over 200 people, mostly terrorist gunmen, have been killed so far.
Captain Arvin Encinas, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division, the military command with jurisdiction over Cotabato province, said Thursday that soldiers continue to pursue the retreating BIFF fighters.
The BIFF, a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has pledged allegiance to IS and is considered by the military as a terrorist group.
“We have repulsed the BIFF’s attempt (to take control of interior villages in Pigcawayan),” Encinas said.
He appealed to civilians to provide information on suspicious individuals or sightings of armed groups so government forces can take appropriate action.
Major General Arnel dela Vega, 6th Infantry Division commander, said the operation against the BIFF was coordinated with the MILF, in adherence to a ceasefire agreement.
“We have conducted the operation against the bandits with precautionary measures. We are encouraging the public to extend their full support in order to facilitate the immediate stabilization of the area,” dela Vega said.
Cotabato province, a neighbor of Maguindanao province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, has suffered from major wars waged by MILF rebels against the government prior to the signing of a final peace agreement in 2014.