2,000 flee as military, BIFF clash in North Cotabato

ALEOSAN, North Cotabato (MindaNews/10 August)—An estimated 2,000 residents have sought refuge at an evacuation center in Aleosan, North Cotabato as clashes erupted between the military and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) Saturday morning, North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza said.

Social workers were deployed to the Pagangan National High School in Aleosan to look after the welfare of the evacuees, she said in a text message.

In a statement posted at the Facebook account of the North Cotabato provincial government, Mendoza said that government troops in North Cotabato are doing its best to secure the national highway for the security of the civilians and commuters.

“The local government units and concerned government agencies are working closely to address the needs of the evacuees and other victims,” Mendoza said.

These recent atrocities, including the recent bombings, are “direct assault and insult to all peace-loving Mindanawons as well as to the sincere efforts of the President and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process,” she said.

GMA News Online reported that two BIFF fighters were killed and two soldiers were wounded in the hostilities, citing a report from Col. Dickson Hermoso, 6th Infantry Division spokesperson.

Dennis Domingo, information officer of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Region 12, said they were still gathering the actual number of refugees as of 3:30 p.m.

He said that residents of Barangays Langayen, Bualan, Nalapaan and Pamalian in Pikit have also evacuated to safer grounds because of the clashes between the government and BIFF forces.

Domingo did not give other details.

Lt. Col. Donald Gumiran, 40th Infantry Battalion commander, said the military operation in the municipalities of Aleosan and Pikit came after BIFF forces attacked a military camp in Barangay Tubak in Aleosan town.

The evacuation of residents from three villages in the towns of Aleosan and Pikit reportedly started Friday night as BIFF elements were sighted in the area.

Gumiran said that residents from Barangay Pagangan in Aleosan and Barangays Nalapaan and Bualan in Pikit have evacuated near the national highway.

“Exchange of gunfire could be heard in [Barangays] Pagangan, Lagundi [in Pikit] and Nalapaan,” Gumiran said at around 8 a.m. Saturday.

MindaNews arrived at Barangay Pagangan at around 2 p.m. and gunfire could be heard here as the evacuees were massing.

Peace advocate Fr. Bert Layson, who is closely monitoring the situation with other local peace monitors, said the military offensive has been coordinated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to avoid misencounter with MILF fighters.

The target of the operation is the BIFF rebels, he said.

“Military officials and local MILF commanders, in the spirit of the peace process, are closely coordinating with each other to avoid misencounter. We pray this will not worsen as time goes on,” Layson said.

The BIFF is a breakaway group of the MILF.

Jessie Enid, executive assistant of Mendoza, said earlier in the day that 49 families from Barangay Tubak in Aleosan sought refuge at an evacuation center in Barangay Pagangan on Saturday morning.

Enid added that some of the displaced families from Barangay Pagangan have yet to be validated since they fled to their relatives in the neighboring town of Pikit.

As of 1:20 p.m., he disclosed that the military pounded suspected lairs of the BIFF in Barangay Tubak using 105mm howitzers, as clashes continue.

Enid said the local government of Aleosan has already deployed trucks in Barangay Bago Libas to transport residents to evacuation centers should fighting escalates.

Saturday’s clashes came a day after the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadhan. (Ferdinandh Cabrera with a report from Keith Bacongco in Davao City)