Rebels tending to farm amidst firefight

Jan. 30, 2014

by John Rizle L. Saligumba
Davao Today

DAVAO CITY –  A breakaway Moro guerrilla group in Central Mindanao said the main bulk of its forces were out of harm’s way of government military artillery shellings and that its forces were divided into engaging in gunbattles or planting and indoctrination of its mass base.

Abu Misry Mama, spokesperson of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) told Davao Today in a phone interview on Thursday night that “while some of our forces are engaged in gunfights with government troops, they are also busy planting palay and conducting Islamic orientation” within their controlled areas.

“Wala kaming ginagawang masama. Nagtatanim kami ng mga palay, nagsagawa kami ng mga Islamic orientation (We are not committing any wrongdoings. Here we are planting rice and conducting Islamic orientation among villagers),” said Mama.

The rebel spokesperson did not reveal their location but said that they were far from where the Philippine Army had been training their cannons since the offensive against them started.

Mama said they were able to move away their forces from the direction of the goverment military operation, and claimed that they got wind of an Army “massive operation” seven days before the actual skirmishes started last Monday.

They belie reports of heavy casualties.

“There was a shelling of 105 and 155 (howitzers), airplane dropping bombs and helicopter attacks for 3 days. There only 7 of us who got wounded,” he said.

The Army claimed to have recovered at least 40 bodies of BIFF fighters, including a minor, in its operations which started 5:00 am of Monday and that should have ended at 5:00 am today, according to 6th ID Commander, Brigadier General Romeo Gapuz in a television interview.

“As of the moment, because of the skirmishes that have been happening, we are planning to put-up a request of additional 72 hours for us to finish,” said Gapuz adding that their request has to be approved by the peace panel.

Mama said they were prepared to attack anytime if one of them “got killed” but mostly they only take “defensive actions” when government troops reach areas where they also have “forces” or when they enter rebel “territories.”

“But when we are the one going conducting the operation, we send emissaries to civilians like last time when we attacked soldiers. We tell civilians to tell the soldiers to leave or else we will attack them. If the will not leave, we tell civilians to leave instead so they will not get caught in the cross fire,” said Mama.

In September 2013 the BIFF said it warned that they would attack government troops and installations in the province of North Cotabato and called on civilians to evacuate.

The group attacked the towns of Midsayap on Septemeber 24 and Tulunan on September 25 which forced more than 3,000 residentsto evacuate.

Government authorities who appeared to have been caught off-guard linked the attack to the then ongoing “Zamboanga siege” staged by forces loyal to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founding Chairman Nur Misuari. The BIFF denied the allegation.

The BIFF was formed sometime after Ameril Umra Kato, who led the MILF’s 105th Base Command in the Maguindanao area, declined to yield to MILF directive to give up his post and head another non-military post in the MILF.  The move was seen as an MILF action against him and his command after the government pressured the MILF to yield its three base commanders to account for their attacks in 2008 in the towns of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.

These attacks happened immediately after the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain, which was supposed to complete the round of agreements leading to a comprehensive political settlement with the MILF.

With the fresh government offensive, Mama branded the Army “terrorists” and the “true spoilers” of the peace negotiations.

Hindi operation ng BIFF, operation ng sundalo na nagsabotahe sa pagpirma sa MILF-GRP annex sa framework na pinirmahan at nung nakalipas na mga taon. Kaya tingnan ninyo, kung may usapan, operation na po ng sundalo, pero sabi nila kami nag operation (It is not the BIFF who conducted military operations but the soldiers. It is they who plan to sabotage the signing of the annex on normalization by the MILF-GRP as well as other agreements in the past. See, if there are talks, they conduct military operations against us but say it us who conducted an operation agains them),” said Mama.

But Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesperson of the the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said they were on “calibrated police action” sinceMonday to “arrest” BIFF leaders charged of committing crimes in the area.

“They planted roadside bombs, sniped at our soldiers, took school teachers as hostages, and in one instance, even beheaded a civilian captive. A few days ago, in the midst of the fighting, they commandeered a private vehicle and forcibly used it as a roadblock,” Miriam Coronel-Ferrer chairperson of the government panel negotiating peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said in an emailed statement to the media.

Coronel said that prior to the conduct of the operations both government and the MILF have “ensured the safety of civilians in surrounding areas” and that relief provisions have been on standby “to meet the basic needs of those who have been temporarily displaced.”

Coronel said the “ongoing military operations were geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process.”

The MNLF is the original organization of the Moro revolutionaries who sought an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. The organization later fragmented into several groups including the MILF also because of disagreements over the conduct of the peace negotiations with the government.

The MNLF signed the 1976 Tripoli agreement and the 1996 final peace pact with the government, giving birth to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Asked if they still have contact with any other Moro group, Mama confirmed.

“Back when we were still in Camp Omar, Nur Misuari came and talked to Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato of us merging with them. The Ustadz said if they decide to join us, we see if they are qualified but if we are to join them, the Ustadz said no way,” said Mama.

Mama said that their stand may be the same with other groups pursuing an independent bangsamoro (moro land) as such that a “merging” may indeed happen.

“We call on the members and the leaders of the BIFF  to put down their arms and be part of the process. We ask them to listen to the plea of their own brothers and sisters to give peace a chance,” said Coronel.

But for Mama, their resolve to achieving this end “is only two.”

“For us it is only victory or martyrdom,” he said. (John Rizle L. Saligumba/

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