THE PHILIPPINE military destroyed on Saturday a main camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a local extremist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), after members who have earlier surrendered provided crucial information.
Major General Cirilito E. Sobejana, commander of the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division and Joint Task Force (JTF) Central, said they have been planning the operation since former-BIFF members who voluntarily turned themselves in to authorities provided intelligence on the group’s stronghold.
“We deliberately concealed this to the public because we had an ongoing operations against the BIFF in Maguindanao. We did not want them to know we have their former members,” Mr. Sobejana said in a press conference Sunday in Cotabato City, where the 10 ex-BIFF fighters were also present.
JTF Central launched surgical air, artillery and ground operation at 6 a.m. of Feb. 2 after it identified targets in Tatak, Barangay Tugal, Sultan Sa Barongis in Maguindanao where the group led by Saluhudin Hassan were encamped.
The military, in a statement, said they destroyed an estimated 20-capacity bunkers and foxholes of the IS-inspired group.
Mr. Sobejana also said that civilians were secured prior to the operation.
“We ease the fear of our people and assure them that safety procedures were undertaken and deliberately planned by JTFC giving due concern to the safety of the civilian populace,” he said.
He added that the military also coordinated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (MILF CCCH).
The BIFF is a breakaway group from the MILF, which signed a peace agreement with the government in 2014.
“Appropriate coordination was also made with MILF CCCH and the targeted areas were confined to locations far from the local communities,” said Mr. Sobejana.
Initial reports, he said, indicate that 10 BIFF members were killed and several wounded, including the leader Hassan.
“Walo ‘yung patay, may mga pangalan kami pero ‘yung iba ibina-validate pa namin kasi unnamed…tapos sampu ‘yung wounded kasama si Salahudin Hassan (Eight were dead, we have their names, but the rest we are still validating it because they are unnamed… then there were 10 wounded which includes Salahudin Hassan),” Mr. Sobejana said in a message to reporters in Manila on Sunday afternoon.
Soldiers on the ground encountered as estimated 70 to 100 BIFF members in the camp, which Mr. Sobejana described as a wide area.
“Medyo may kalawakan yung area, yung nasapol talaga ‘yung main camp nila (The area is quite wide, what we hit was their main camp),” Mr. Sobejana said.
At the press conference, the former BIFF members told the media that their reasons for surrendering were a mix of missing their families, pressure from the focused military pursuit operations, and seeing new hope in government.
“We are tired of hiding,” said Alan Saligan, son of BIFF commander Gani Saligan, the oldest among those who surrendered.
“Hindi din naman nila kami natutulungan (The group has been unable to help us),” he added.
Mr. Sobejana said there are also indications of a power struggle within the BIFF, which pushed some members to return to the fold of law.
The surrenderers also turned over their weapons, including 50 cal. sniper, Ultimax, M14, and a 45 caliber. — Tajallih S. Basman and Vince Angelo C. Ferreras