CAMP SIONGCO, Maguindanao — A soldier was killed in the military’s three-day offensive against gunmen formerly allied with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the borders of Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces.
The military on Tuesday confirmed the death of Pfc. Garry Quitor, a native of Pigcawayan, North Cotabato, and a member of the Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion (IB).
Quitor and his fellow soldiers were wading in a portion of the vast Liguasan Marsh when he was hit, said Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, 33rd IB commander.
“He volunteered as the point man of the patrol despite the high risks involved in the operations. His bravery will be emulated by the rest of my troops,” Cabunoc said.
Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the 6th Infantry Division (ID) based here, said the government “lost a gentleman and a warrior” with Quitor’s death. “He will never be forgotten,” he said.
The military said the operations also resulted in the killing of 15 former BIFF gunmen under the command of Esmael Abdulmalik, also known as Abu Toraife.
Abdulmalik had recently bolted BIFF to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, a military report said. He now works with former BIFF commander Esmail Abubakar, known as Commander Bungos, it said.
Sobejana said their reports indicated that among the casualties on Abdulmalik’s group could be five Indonesians and a Singaporean seen in the area as air and ground operations were being conducted on Sunday.
“They are confirmed to be with the terror group and could be among the 15 fatalities,” Sobejana told the Inquirer. “They were our primary targets. We are still validating their identities.”
Cabunoc said Abdulmalik’s group had moved farther into the vast Liguasan Marsh that he and his men had to wade in chest-deep, murky water to find them.
“We are adapting in this new battlefield condition through innovations in tactics and equipment. We are drawing lessons from this experience,” Cabunoc said.
He said some informants had also told him that Singaporean bomb expert Salahuddin Hassan, also known as Orak, and some foreign jihadists had eluded the bomb run and were still trapped in the area.
Hassan has been the target of military operations in the past after being allegedly involved in several attacks in Central Mindanao.
As the military continued to pursue Abdulmalik’s group in Liguasan Marsh, BIFF gunmen attacked the military detachments in Datu Unsay and Datu Hoffer town on Monday night.
Capt. Arvin John Encinas, spokesperson for the 6th ID, said four BIFF gunmen were killed in the attacks, which he said were in retaliation for the military assault against Abdulmalik’s group.
Encinas said the BIFF gunmen also shot and killed two residents of Barangay Limpogo in Datu Hoffer.
Abu Misri Mama, BIFF spokesperson, admitted that their forces were behind the attacks but said only two of their members were killed.
The military operations displaced about 20,000 people from the towns of Pagalungan, Datu Montawal, Raja Buayan and SK Pendatun in Maguindanao, and Pikit in North Cotabato.
Education officials in Maguindanao’s second congressional district, including the four towns where the military operations were being conducted, suspended classes starting Monday. More than 1,400 elementary pupils and a few hundred high school students had been affected by the suspension.
Lawyer Rasol Mitmug Jr., education secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said elementary teachers in the four towns had been instructed to help protect their pupils from harm.
Mitmug did not say when classes would resume, but noted that some of the public schools in Pagalungan, Datu Montawal, Raja Buayan and SK Pendatun were being used as evacuation centers. —Karlos Manlupig and Edwin Fernandez
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