THE military yesterday sought to downplay President Duterte’s pronouncement about a possible spillover to Maguindanao of the dragging armed conflict in Marawi City.
The conflict between government forces and the Maute Group started on May 23 and has so far led to the death of 620 Maute members, 136 soldiers and policemen, and 45 civilians.
On Friday, President Duterte said he has considered lifting martial law which he imposed in the entire Mindanao because of the Marawi siege, but changed his mind because it appeared there is a spillover of the conflict to Buldon town in Maguindanao. Marawi is the capital of Lanao del Sur which is adjacent to Maguindanao.
Capt. Arvin Encinas, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said what the military is currently confronting in Maguindanao are members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
He said the military, in collaboration with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, launched joint operations on August 2 against the BIFF in Datu Salibo where BIFF leader Esmael Abdulmalik, also known as Abu Toraype, is said to be hiding.
Encinas said the operation, which has led to on and off skirmishes — mostly between MILF and BIFF members — has so far resulted in the death of 20 BIFF men and 15 MILF rebels based on information from the community.
“The main battle area of the fighting between the BIFF and MILF is Datu Salibo, particularly in Barangay Tee and Barangay Andavit where the group of Abu Toraype is hiding,” he said.
Encinas said five government soldiers have been so far reported wounded in the fighting. He said the five soldiers were injured in two separate skirmishes in Mamasapano town last Thursday.
“This is a joint operation,” said Encinas, referring to the continuing campaign of the Armed Forces and the MILF, which signed a peace accord with the government in 2012.
The MILF and the government has an existing peace mechanism called the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group whose main function is the interdiction of lawless and criminal elements in MILF areas.
Encinas said Buldon, which is near the boundary of Lanao del Sur and a known BIFF area, is too far from Datu Salibo town.
“That is not a spillover because what we are confronting is purely BIFF, it’s not Maute. If it’s a spillover of the Marawi (fighting), we should be confronting the Maute Group,” he said.
“We already made verification, there is no (Maute) group there in Buldon. There is no ongoing encounter or any operation there… He may be talking about another area,” said Encinas.
Duterte has visited troops in Marawi thrice, and vowed to continue to visit the troops until the fighting is over.
The military expects fighting with the Maute to intensify in the final stages of the conflict.
AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Año said the military respects the recent decision of government prosecutors to release 59 suspected Maute members for lack of strong evidence for the crime of rebellion filed by the military.
“There might not be enough evidence against them but at least we have prevented this group from being deceived and exploited by an extremist group… and armed to reinforce the Maute-ISIS groups in Marawi,” said Año who is the martial law implementor.
The 59 were arrested in separate operations in Zamboanga City and Zamboanga Sibugay last July for alleged links with the Marawi rebellion. They were allegedly on their way to Marawi to enforce the Maute.
Año said the military will still monitor the movement of the 59 “to ensure that they will not be a threat to the community.”