CAMP SIONGCO, Maguindanao – After 24 days of military offensives, occasionally backed by air strikes, a major camp of outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao fell to government hands, the Army here said today.
But clearing operations are still continuing due to the presence of booby traps left by fleeing Moro bandits in a well-fortified stronghold in Barangay Tee, Datu Salibo municipality in Maguindanao.
Sadly, the capture of BIFF camps cost the lives of three soldiers, including the latest fatality who was killed when improvised bomb went off, according to Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, 6th Infantry Division commander.
Private First Class Jury Catalan of 57th Infantry Battalion was killed when an improvised bomb went off in Barangay Tee while soldiers were conducting clearing operations.
Pangilinan described the surroundings of the BIFF bailiwick as “mine field” laden with undetermined number of ordnance left by armed men as they fled.
The IEDs were obviously for government forces. “Bombs litter the village,” according to Lt. Colonel Ambrosio Rustia, 57th IB chief. He said the Philippine flag is not hoisted in Barangay Tee.
The military believed the BIFF fighters fled deep into the marshland and toward the borders of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, leaving its former camp laden with bombs. Barangay Tee has about 300 households.
“It is a very dangerous area as of now if civilians would return home, the bombs could not be seen by naked eye,” Pangilinan told reporters in Filipino.
On Monday, Army bomb experts from the Philippine Army main headquarters have arrived to help locate the IEDs in Barangay Tee before civilians will be allowed to return home.
The military could not say how many BIFF fighters were killed in the 24 days law enforcement operations which started when the BIFF harassed a private construction company conducting dredging of Butilen river as flood control project.
The military did not issue casualty figure on the side of the Moro armed men but admitted it lost three soldiers in the conflict. At least 18 others were slightly injured, mostly by roadside bombs.
Pangilinan on Monday honored the wounded infantrymen, awarding them with medals for bravery.
The BIFF bombings also killed five civilians, including the town treasurer of Datu Salibo, when a roadside bomb went off in Datu Saudi Ampatuan highway.
Improvised bombs with the “signatures” of the BIFF were also set off in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Guindulungan, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Hofer and Shariff Aguak, all in Maguindanao and in Pikit and Aleosan in North Cotabato.
BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama said his comrades have lied low, trying to recover for more offensives against the military.
He said only one BIFF member was killed and two wounded in the fighting with the Army. He boosted that 20 soldiers were killed and three military armored vehicle destroyed by BIFF.
Capt. Joann Petinglay, 6th ID spokesperson, laughed off Mama’s claim, saying it was clearly a defense mechanism statement by propagandist that refuses to accept defeat.
She admitted though that armored personnel carriers were hit by bullets but not destroyed.
Meanwhile, the 2,500 families displaced by armed conflict are being attended to by the provincial social welfare office and Integrated Provincial Health Office (IPHO).
Dr. Tahir Sulaik, provincial health chief, has led Monday the distribution of relief items and medicine to affected families. He admitted some children have been suffering from waterborne diseases.