Five dead in new Mindanao conflict

Fighting erupts in North Cotabato as Zamboanga standoff continues
Five dead in new Mindanao conflict

Soldiers pursue Moro rebels in North Cotabato province (photo by Mark Navales) reporter, Davao City
September 23, 2013
Attacks by an Islamic rebel splinter group in North Cotabato province resulted in five deaths on Monday in the latest fighting linked to southern Mindanao’s troubled peace process.

Armed militants of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), attacked four villages at about 2am local time but were repelled by authorities.

A firefight, which peaked at about 8am, resulted in the deaths of four BIFF fighters and one soldier. Another soldier was wounded.

The rebels fled with 15 civilian hostages including 11 farmers whom they used as human shields to escape, said army spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso, as sporadic fighting continued in the area through the afternoon.

"Fighting broke out and the BIFF withdrew in different directions," said Hermoso.

Most of the hostages were later freed as the military conducted an operation in pursuit of the rebels, said another army spokesman, Captain Tony Bulao.

Abu Misrie, a spokesman for BIFF, denied that the group had taking hostages.

“In fact, it was our forces that rescued them and brought them to safer ground,” he said.

The BIFF is a breakaway group of the MILF, which is involved in ongoing peace negotiations with the government. Critics say many groups and interests have been excluded, fueling resentment and flighting. BIFF is headed by Amerik Umbra Kato, who has led attacks in several provinces in Mindanao since 2008.

Last week, BIFF fighters were reported to have joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Abu Sayyaf, another Islamic separatist group in Mindanao, in attacks in the town of Lamitan in Basilan province.

The fighting today in North Cotabato had nothing to do with the ongoing standoff with MNLF in Zamboanga City, said Bulao, a conflict which continued into its 15th day on Monday, a day after President Benigno Aquino announced that he expects the fighting to be over soon.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said government troops were "now engaged in close quarter combat” with about 40 remaining rebels who continue to hold 20 hostages in Zamboanga City.

More than 100 people have died since the fighting erupted on September 9, many of them militants, as the army has poured in about 4,500 troops, said Zagala.

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