Fighting in Midsayap stops as gov?t, MILF meet with IMT

The Malaysian-led international observers are scheduled to go to the affected areas in Midsayap Monday morning along with the government and the MILF Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH)

Sheik Abbas Curanding, chief of the MILF Central Mindanao Command said they have ordered all their fighters “to stand down” following the announcement of the meeting.

Likewise, the Philippine Army was also ordered by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon to stop their operation, said Rexall Kaalim, coordinator of Bantay Ceasefire, quoting military officers.

At least 6,000 residents from barangays Rangeban, Tugal and Mudseng evacuated Saturday when Philippine Air Force OV-10 planes bombed rebel positions.

Sporadic clashes that started Thursday left three militiamen killed and several others wounded. Two soldiers and some civilians were also wounded. There were no casualties reported on the side of the rebels.

The lull in the fighting will allow humanitarian aid and food to flow to the evacuees who have sought shelter under coconut trees, empty farm storehouses and schools.

Presidential Adviser Jesus Dureza is expected to bring the bulk of aid to the evacuees today.

Classes in three elementary schools in nearby barangays of Kapinpilan, Dimaudtang, Nes, and Nabalawang were also suspended by their teachers.

“The parents will not allow their children to go to school. They want them in their homes in case the fighting will flare up again,” Efren Mantawil, Department of Education district supervisor said.

In Barangay Dimaudtang elementary school, its principal complained that MILF fighters have occupied the school’s premises in violation of International Humanitarian Law.

 “The MILF fighters are even stretched along the highway leading to the school,” Dimaudtang school Principal Dali Endaila told MindaNews.

Pikit Parish priest Roberto Layson who was able to go near the school Sunday confirmed what Endaila had claimed.

“The fighters did not occupy the classrooms but still it is a violation since they are inside the school grounds,” Layson said.

Curanding said their fighters were there to rest and promised they will vacate the school immediately.

Heartrending stories of how residents flee the fighting echoed again in Midsayap town.

Fifty-one-year-old Tuta Panday said they spent hours walking and looking up to the sky every time they heard the unmistakable drone of an approaching warplane.

“Iyong pagputok sa bomba parang kidlat tumama (The bomb explosions sounded like lightning),” he aid.

Panday said his entire clan of 20 moved in carts and carabaos (water buffalos) when the warplanes started their bomb runs Saturday.

He said they started walking 3pm Saturday and arrived in barangay Kapinpilan deep in the night. Barangay Tugal is four kilometers from Barangay Kapinpilan.

“Pag may narinig kaming eroplano, takbo kami at magtago sa ilalim sa niyugan (Every time we heard an airplane we would run and hide under the coconut trees),” he recalled.

He said he is thankful to Allah that his entire family arrived safely in Kapinpilan.

Lt. Col. Julito Ando, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao, said the military attacked when the MILF allegedly placed civilians in danger. He said they have deployed two platoons when MILF rebels "massed" in the barangays.   

The hostilities started on January 25 when MILF forces under Kumander Yuri Sugod allegedly fired at members of the Civilian Volunteers Organization (CVO), Ando said.

He said a firefight erupted between the armed civilian volunteers and the rebels when the latter allegedly tried to rob farmers of their rice harvest.

But the MILF denied the allegation, saying the military retaliated instead of pacifying the situation.

MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu told MindaNews there has been an "on and off" land conflict between relatives of MILF members and armed Bantay Bayan members in Midsayap.

Kabalu said kin of MILF members are natives of the barangays while Bantay Bayan members are protecting the interests of settlers who claim ownership of lands there.

He refuted the military's claim that they were pursuing lawless elements. He said the soldiers fired at MILF fighters and the latter retaliated.