Soldiers capture BIFF ‘camp’ in Southwestern Mindanao

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/24 June)– Government troops overran on Sunday a base of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) located at the boundary of President Quirino town in Sultan Kudarat and Gen. Salipada K. Pendatun town in Maguindanao following a series of offensives in the area.

Col. Edmundo Pangilinan, commander of the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade, said Monday they captured the BIFF stronghold after its estimated 150 to 200 armed members were forced to flee as a result of the intensified military operations since Saturday.

View Pres. Quirino in a larger map

He said the offensives were triggered by separate attacks staged by suspected BIFF elements in Barangay Bagumbayan, President Quirino town last Friday that killed a civilian and a member of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu).

On Saturday morning, he said troops under the Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion launched ground and artillery attacks using 105mm howitzer cannons against the armed group.

“But the situation in the area has started to normalize and no more gunfire was heard since last night after we captured the stronghold of the armed lawless group,” Pangilinan said in an interview over radio station dxKR.

As of Monday morning, he said the clearing operations in the area were still ongoing against the armed group, which is reportedly led by alleged local BIFF leader Sukarno Sapal.

Pangilinan said Sapal is a known follower of BIFF founder Ameril Umra Kato, who previously headed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) 105th base command in Maguindanao.

Kato waged a war with the government after the botched signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in 2008. He eventually formed the BIFF in 2010 and was formally expelled by the MILF the following year.

Pangilinan said that Sapal’s group had figured in the August 2012 clashes between government troops and the BIFF in Shariff Aguak town.

Prior to the BIFF attacks last Friday, Pangilinan said some farmers and residents of Barangay Bagumbayan reported that they were harassed by the group in several occasions.

“(The harassments) were actually connected to a long-standing land conflict in the area between local residents and a group of (Moro) claimants,” he said.

The official said the land conflict in the area started to heat up in 2007 and 2008 but the local government of President Quirino was able to resolve the situation after holding dialogues with the contending parties.

“But the harassments continued and eventually turned violent with Friday’s attacks,” he said.

Meantime, around 300 families or 1,500 individuals have evacuated from Barangay Bagumbayan since Friday as a result of the attacks and the military operations.

Bonifacio Selma, disaster operations head of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Region 12, said they are currently monitoring the condition of the evacuees, who have taken temporarily shelter in adjacent villages and communities.

He said the agency has standby relief goods and is ready to deliver them upon the request of the affected local government unit. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)