CAMP SIONGCO, Maguindanao — A military official has urged residents displaced by government operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to return to their communties, saying fighting had gone deeper into the Liguasan Marsh, away from populated areas.
“We ask our people to return home now. It is now safe to return to your communities,” said Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of 6th Infantry Division, on Wednesday, addressing more than 30,000 residents in six towns in Maguindanao province and Pikit town in North Cotabato province.
The death toll in the continuing military operation in the vast Liguasan Marsh spanning North Cotabato and Maguindanao rose to 25 as BIFF gunmen launched attacks in several areas.
Since Sunday’s air and ground assaults, military reports said at least 23 BIFF gunmen had died while the government lost one soldier. A civilian was allegedly executed by BIFF gunmen in Datu Hoffer town on Tuesday.
Sobejana said areas covered by military operations, even from the first day when air and ground strikes were conducted, were far from populated areas, so there should not have been any displacements.
He said the military had coordinated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to avoid any misencounter in areas under the group’s control.
Safe to go home
Tahira Kalantongan, disaster risk reduction and management officer of Pikit, agreed with Sobejana, saying it was safe for the more than 10,000 displaced individuals in her town to return home.
“It would be best if they return home and celebrate the Eid’l Fitr (end of fasting) on Friday in their homes than in evacuation centers,” Kalantongan said.
Tim Ambolodto of the Maguindanao provincial disaster risk reduction and management office said that even if the military had issued a clearance for the return of the residents, Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Toto Mangudadatu still ordered the distribution of relief goods “so [people] will have something on their table during the Eid.”
Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesperson for 6th Infantry Division, said that while soldiers were pursuing Islamic State-inspired gunmen in Liguasan Marsh, BIFF members attacked government troops in Datu Unsay and Datu Hoffer towns in Maguindanao, and clashed with soldiers in Midsayap town, North Cotabato.
He said five BIFF gunmen were killed in the Datu Unsay firefight on Monday while a resident was shot dead by BIFF members in Datu Hoffer.
In Midsayap, North Cotabato, two relatives of Mando Mamalupong, a BIFF commander, were killed in a firefight with soldiers on Tuesday. —Edwin O. Fernandez
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