By Ali G. Macabalang
President Rordigo Duterte has asked local leaders in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to deny terror-bound groups from seeking or maintaining sanctuary in their respective communities, or else he would declare all-out offensives.
The President made the call in his visit at the headquarters of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division (6ID) in Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao on Tuesday, May 11, three days after combatants of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) swarmed Datu Paglas town and occupied the municipal market area for at least six hours.
He said keeping the bandits out of the BARMM would prevent him from ordering a full-scale military offensive against the BIFF, something some peace stakeholders feared as possible repeat of the mass destruction and displacement in Marawi City in 2017.
“This cannot go on. If they cannot be stopped and there will be an all-out offensive, that will be a problem. If I give the order, I will no longer withdraw it,” Duterte told top BARMM civilian, police and military officials who welcomed him on Tuesday.
“I’m begging you. Help me. Because otherwise, if I give the order for an all-out offensive, it will be bloody and it will be sad,” the President added.
“I don’t want to kill Muslims. I don’t want to kill Christians. I want a peaceful life for all of us in the world,” Duterte said.
BARMM officials led by Chief Minister Ahod “Hadji Murad” Ebrahim, who attended the Presidential visit, could not be reached for reaction about Duterte’s call.
Only Sheikh Mohammad “Abuhuraira” Udasan, BARMM’s spiritual leader or grand mufti, came up with a statement that was posted in Facebook pages alongside the Presidential remarks.
Udasan’s statement cited some verses in the Holy Qur’an which prescribe for all faithful Muslims to shun people or groups of violent propensity such as the BIFF in Maguindanao and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Sulu region.
Duterte’s visit came three days after some 100 BIFF rebels occupied a market area in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao for at least six hours last May 8 and prompted exchanges of bullets with responding state security forces.
The rebels’ siege of the town market, which came as a surprise for most people in Maguindanao amid the advent of Ramadan fasting, was heralded first through a Facebook tip by former Rajah Buayan mayor, now Agriculture Usec. Zamzamin Ampatuan.
Local leaders including Maguindanao 2nd District Rep. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu have since taken turns in airing condemnations of the incident, describing it as taboo in the observance of Ramadan fast.
Rep. Mangudadatu was interviewed by local media workers, who produced video clips showing him in the company of civilian and military contingents girding to respond to Datu Paglas town a few kilometers away.
A day later, the military reported having cleared the Datu Paglas poblacion after a firefight with the rebels, saying the attackers belonged to one of the three BIFF factions under Mohiden Animbang alias “Kumander Karialan.” The two other factions are reportedly led by Ismael Abubakar, alias “Imam Bongos,” and Esmael Abdulmalik alias “Abu Toraife.”
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Roy Galido, head of the Army’s 601st Brigade, reported that pursuing soldiers have killed four of the rebels and wounded another
At the 6ID Headquarters on Tuesday, Chief Minister Ebrahim and his cabinet were expected to present to President Duterte a comprehensive plan to curb violence by extremist groups in the region during their meeting with him on Tuesday, the Rappler online news said.
“We are set to present to him a proposal to decisively address the conflict in the SPMS Box caused by BIFFand ISIS-inspired Turaife group,” the online news quoted BARM Interior and Local Government Minister Naguib Sinarimbo as saying.
The plan crafted and approved by the Bangsamoro cabinet involved two parts, said Sinarimbo: Improved cooperation between troops of the MILF and Philippine military to “defeat BIFF” and “massive development” in the area so that it’s people will support the government and not the BIFF.
SPMS Box is a military classified area referring to areas near Liguasan Marsh in Maguindanao composed of the four towns of Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi Ampatuan (formerly known as Pagatin), Mamasapano, and Datu Salibo.
It is known as a stronghold of the BIFF, a militant group responsible for much violence and attacks on government forces.
The BIFF, before it splintered to three factions, was formed by Ustaz Ameril Umbrah Kato after he bolted from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after the MILF leadership opted to pursue autonomy in lieu of independence.
Chief Minister Ebrahim, who chairs the MILF central committee, had announced two years ago that his leadership was pursuing informal back channel talks with two of the BIFF factions.
He said the one of the BIFF factions had “closed” any possible room for its members to return to the folds of the law.
Since 2019, military and civilian establishments have been reporting gradual surrenders of BIFF men in batches. AGM