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Southern Philippines offensive sees 55,000 flee homes

Military seeking to flush out Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao.

Southern Philippines offensive sees 55,000 flee homes

By Roy Ramos and Hader Glang

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines 

A military offensive against Muslim insurgents has displaced nearly 55,000 civilians in the southern Philippines, a local aid group said Tuesday.

The military’s Western Mindanao Command and the Philippine National Police launched the joint operation, now in its seventh day, against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a rebel group seeking independence in the Muslim-majority west of Mindanao island.

The operation, which is being conducted in Maguindanao province, has seen at least 54,370 people flee their homes, according to the regional authority’s Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team.

The aid report, released late Monday, refers to nine towns in Maguindanao, the heart of the conflict with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, known as the BIFF.

In Mamasapano township, the agency says 13,185 people had left their homes, many leaving before the current campaign. On Jan. 25, a police operation in the town to arrest two bomb-makers, including one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists, resulted in the deaths of 44 police commandos – a loss that may have spurred the launch of the offensive.

One of the bombers – a Malaysian known as Marwan who was wanted in connection with a string of atrocities, including the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia – was killed in the operation, according to DNA evidence checked by the FBI.

The other, Basit Usman, was reportedly wounded in the raid and is still on the run, supposedly sheltered by the BIFF.

On Monday, the military reported finding a bomb factory in the village of Dasikil and said materials found there belonged to Usman.

As well as the security forces, troops from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an insurgent group that signed a peace deal with the government in March last year, are also taking part in the clearing operation. The BIFF split from the Front in 2008 due to its opposition to peace overtures.

Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, quoted by GMA News, said the operation was launched after 20,000 villagers were forced from their homes by the BIFF. “We will do our best to protect the people and allow them to go back to their homes,” he said.

However, the offensive has sparked a much larger evacuation, prompting some criticism in the Philippine media. The Philippine Daily Inquirer warned the number of evacuees could be expected to rise before it falls.

Meanwhile, the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao released a statement Tuesday saying he was conducting a humanitarian mission alongside disaster response teams and local officials in different towns in Maguindanao.

"The mission includes food and medical assistance, psycho-social interventions and sessions on mine-risk education," Mujiv Hataman said.

According to the military, 20 BIFF have been killed in the offensive. Their total force is estimated at up to 500 members.

Howitzers have been used to shell BIFF positions before ground troops are sent in.

A separate campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent group, is being fought in Sulu and Basilan provinces.

On Tuesday, the army’s 4th Special Forces Battalion was involved in clashes with Abu Sayyaf fighters in Basilan, an island stronghold of the rebels. The military said at least four militants were injured in fighting around Kulay Bato village. 

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