Thousands flee as Army, militia clash with MILF in Midsayap

Romeo Elusfa, of the grassroots-based Bantay Ceasefire, said residents fled

from barangays Rangeban, Tugal, and Mudseng as Philippine Air Force OV-10

planes bombed suspected rebel positions in these villages.

 

The three barangays have an estimated total population of around 4,000families.

 

Elusfa told MindaNews fighting stopped at noon Saturday but that barangay

roads were full of evacuees, including elderly, women and children, who brought their belongings on carts and pulled with them their animals.

 

Volunteers of the Bantay Ceasefire went to the area to monitor the developments in the latest skirmish between the military and Moro rebels in Southwestern Mindanao.

 

In a phone interview with MindaNews Saturday afternoon, Von Al Haq, chairperson of the MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, said firing has stopped as both sides have already disengaged. "But we are still on the watch," he said.

 

The military reportedly shelled and launched air strikes on MILF positions

in Rangeban and Mudseng. Bantay Ceasefire said at least 16 bombs exploded in

the area on Saturday morning.

 

At least three civilian volunteers and an MILF rebel were killed. Two soldiers and several others were wounded as hostilities entered the  third day.

 

The wounded soldiers were identified as Pfc. Ventura and Pfc. Montenegro,

both members of the 7th Infantry Battalion. One of the wounded civilians was

identified as Ronald Calugas, a resident of Rangaban.

 

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.

 

"This is pure banditry. This is no longer about their cause. They attacked

the villagers in order to get the farmers' produce," said 7th IB commander

Col. Jeavy Resureccion.

 

Resureccion said his troops will stay in the area "to prevent intrusion of

lawless elements and until such time that the situation returns to normal."

 

Ando said around 40 soldiers were sent to help pacify the situation but was

instead assaulted by around 150 MILF fighters.

 

He said they only retaliated when the rebels attacked them.

 

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.

 

Elusfa said their own sources also pointed to land conflict between residents and Bantay Bayan members as the cause of the hostilities.

 

Both sides have augmented their forces and claimed this was meant to pacify

the situation.

 

Ando said they have to protect civilians but Kabalu said it was the military

that fired indiscriminately endangering the lives of civilians.

 

Ando said the military respects the primacy of the peace process.

 

Kabalu told MindaNews they have no intention of going to war and that they

are taking a defensive stance.

 

He said local politicians in Midsayap also muddled the issue by siding with

the armed civilian volunteers.

 

Al Haq said they hope to bring to the attention of the International Monitoring Team and the Joint CCCH the ceasefire violations in the  three-day

fighting.

 

The IMT had scheduled a meeting for both committees Sunday in Cotabato City.

Al Haq said the military's branding the MILF forces as "lawless elements" would be among the crucial points to be tackled.

 

Both sides indicated they will protest major violations of the 2003 ceasefire agreement with accusations that their peacekeeping forces were

assaulted.

 

Kabalu, however, said that the incidents should be subjected to an investigation process.

 

Peace talks between the government and MILF have been stalled after the two

parties failed to reach an agreement on the issue of ancestral domain.

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