The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao government has asked the International Monitoring Team (IMT) to prevent a possible escalation of hostilities between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and a splinter group, which has already left 23 people dead.

“Ang expected na mangyari is mage-escalate siya kaya pinapakiusapan namin ‘yung IMT na magstep-in, mag-assist na kung makakaya pa ay pigilin natin,” ARMM Executive Secretary Naguib Sinarembo said in a phone interview.

The Malaysia-led IMT has been monitoring the peace process between the government and the MILF for years.

23 dead

A ranking military source said the clashes between the MILF 106th Base Command, led by Adzmie Kasim, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), under commander Abunawas, has already left 23 dead and 13 injured on both sides.

The fighting, which stemmed from a land dispute, erupted in Datu Piang last Saturday before both groups were reportedly “reinforced” by supporters and clashed anew in Pagalungan and Guindulungan.

Clashes occurred again in Datu Piang Friday afternoon, with commander Adzmie’s forces totally occupying Brgy. Alonganen and commander Abunawas’ men retreating to Brgys. Masigay and Kalipapa, the source said.

Escalation feared

Sinarembo said an “escalation” of hostilities was expected after a skirmish occurred Thursday at the foothills of Camp Omar, the mountain stronghold of former MILF 105th base commander and now BIFF top leader Ameril Umbra Kato in Talayan.

“‘Yung lower portion ng Talayan, towards the marsh, doon nagkaroon ng barilan kahapon at ang initial report ng military, merong movement ang MILF dun mismo sa main camp ng BIFF, parang move to surround the camp ni Umbra Kato… ang expected na mangyari is mage-escalate,” Sinarembo said.

The military source, who requested anonymity because of the “sensitive” situation, said Kato consulted his BIFF commanders Friday morning to determine if they will engage the MILF head on.

Leaders of the MILF, on the other hand, also met at their main camp, Darapanan, to determine whether the elite National Guard Division should proceed to Datu Piang, the source said.

AFP told to ‘hold fire’

Amid the ongoing tension, the Armed Forces of the Philippines positioned troops and tanks in Datu Piang but were ordered not to engage the warring Muslim groups.

Military spokesman Commo. Miguel Jose Rodriguez told reporters in Manila that Army 6th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Rey Ardo was ordered to prevent an escalation of hostilities.

“General Ardo has his orders to make sure that these things will not escalate, we are trying to put a stop to this, but the way he will do it, it’s his own operational plan,” Rodriguez said.

Sinarembo said that during his visit to Datu Piang, troops and tanks can be seen near the site where the MILF 106th Base Command and BIFF clashed.

“May position ang Mechanized Battalion malapit dun sa site n’ung encounter sa Datu Piang, pero ang instructions sa kanila is ‘wag silang mag-engage… basta hindi lang sila pasukan within 500 meters, ‘wag silang gumalaw at hindi naman sila gumalaw,” Sinarembo said.

“Internal kasi sa MILF yung problem eh, gusto natin ma-resolve within sa kanila, sa level nila mismo, ‘yung problem. Ayaw natin ma-drag yung military at lalong magiging complicated ‘yung gulo,” he explained.

More people flee, classes suspended

Meanwhile, Sinarembo said Thursday’s 2 p.m. skirmish in Talayan forced more people to evacuate.

Some 482 families or roughly 2,500 people fled to avoid the fighting in Datu Piang, but the clash in Talayan caused the number of evacuees to rise to 3,000, he said.

“Nagpadala na kami ng tulong kanina sa Datu Piang, sinerve na natin yung relief goods and then pinapavalidate ko ko kung ilan ‘yung sa Talayan, papaserve-an din natin ‘yun kung kailangan,” Sinarembo said.

Colonel Prudencio Asto, Army 6th Infantry Division spokesman, said classes in four elementary and five primary schools in Brgys. Alonganen, Liong, Balakanen, and Masigay have been suspended so the facilities can be used as shelter for the evacuees. (John Roson)

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