Children on the move to safer ground in Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao on May 8, 2021. — 601ST INFANTRY UNIFIER BRIGADE

THERE were no civilian or military casualties in Saturday’s encounter between government forces and members of an extremist group in a commercial area of Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao, according to the country’s military chief.

An estimated 20 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)  attempted but failed to occupy the town’s public market located along the national highway, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Chief of Staff Cirilito E. Sobejana.

The BIFF is a breakaway group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that signed a peace deal with the government and are currently at the forefront of the new autonomous region in Mindanao.

Tagging the BIFF as “peace spoilers,” he called on residents and local government officials to remain vigilant and continue coordinating with the military to ensure public safety.

“I enjoin the populace of and local leaders in Maguindanao to remain vigilant as we continue our watch until peace is stabilized,” Mr. Sobejana, a veteran in the restive parts of the country’s south, said in a statement on Sunday.

Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division that was on the frontline, said they did not fire back at the BIFF members during the encounter to ensure civilian safety.

He said in a phone interview on Saturday that the military immediately deployed troops upon receiving reports of sightings of a heavily-armed group near the public market.

Mr. Baldomar said they were already holding several days of pursuit operations against the terrorist group before Saturday’s incident.

Tension between the BIFF and government forces has been high in the last few weeks, especially with the establishment of a station for the Joint Peace and Security Team — which includes military, police and former MILF fighters — in the Maguindanao hot zone.

The brigade recovered at least four improvised explosive devices left by the fleeing BIFF members during clearing operations.

“The situation has already normalized but we will not rest until the threat is neutralized,” Mr. Sobejana said.

Meanwhile, a Mindanao-based rights group on Sunday renewed its call for a “stop” to armed operations in the southern part of the Philippines, citing impacts on vulnerable groups.

“Accompanying the passage of the Bangsamoro law, we are  deeply saddened with the armed operations  in a holy month of Ramadan, schoolrooms in this location in Maguindanao have turned into evacuation anew,” Samira A. Gutoc-Tomawis, chair of Ako Bakwit, Inc., said in a statement. — Maya M. Padillo and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza