Followers of Moro rebel leader Ameril Umbra Kato launched attacks in different towns of Maguindanao early Monday, firing at military installations and cutting off powerlines, authorities said.

Colonel Prudencio Asto, public affairs chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the attacks started around 12:30 a.m., with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) “harassing” detachments in Brgy. Cabengi, Datu Saudi Ampatuan; Brgy. Bagan, Guindulungan, and Brgys. Meta and Maitumaig in Datu Unsay.

All four detachments are located at the fringes of Kato’s mountain stronghold, Camp Omar, located at the boundary of the three towns.

Armed BIFM members also fired at the 1st Mechanized Brigade headquarters in Shariff Aguak and the 2nd Mechanized Infantry Battalion headquarters in Brgy. Cabengi, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Asto said.

The 1st Mechanized Brigade is currently housed at the former provincial capitol beside a mansion of the Ampatuan family, so bullets also landed on the house, he said.

Also “harrassed,” around 6:15 a.m., were soldiers manning the detachment in Brgy. Salman, Ampatuan, near the site of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

“Lalapitan nila (BIFM members) ‘yung detachment o kampo, paputukan, saka aalis and then pagkatapos ng ilang minuto puputukan uli, ganun ang ginagawa nila, parang hit and run,” Asto said.

At least two BIFM members were killed as government troops repulsed the attacks while a soldier, identified as Cpl. Romel Mantos of the 603rd Infantry Brigade, suffered minor injuries.

Skirmishes were still going on until noon as troops conduct clearing operations near the attacked military installations. The BIFM deployed an estimated 500 fighters to carry out the attacks, Asto said.

Power posts cut down, hundreds flee

Senior Supt. Marcelo Pintac, Maguindanao provincial police director, said 11 municipalities were affected by the attacks as BIFM members cut electric posts.

“Pinutol nila ‘yung linya ng kuryente, ‘yung mga poste, pinutol nila,” he said, adding that even the provincial police headquarters has no power.

A military official in the area, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak, said the BIFM members used chainsaws to cut electric posts.

Loreto Rirao, head of the Office of Civil Defense in Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said fighting was concentrated in the towns of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Hoffer Ampatuan, Guindulungan, Ampatuan, and Shariff Aguak.

As of Monday noon, the OCD-ARMM has “validated” an initial 189 families as having been affected by the fighting. Classes in all the affected areas were suspended, he said.

Also, the affected areas are located along the Cotabato City-General Santos highway, so motorists were advised to take different routes, Rirao said.

“Closed pa ang kalsada, kini-clear pa ng military at wala pang makadaan ngayon,” he said, adding that this was also the reason why OCD employees could not validate the other families.

Asto, for his part, said all military units in the province were ordered to be on a “defensive posture” to prevent further attacks.

“Defensive action kami, we will punish those who committed these atrocities, we will also make them suffer the consequences, at ito’y inumpisahan nila,” he said.

Peace talks not affected

In Manila, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles condemned the attacks, but said these will not affect peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Kato was formerly a commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command, but broke away and formed the BIFM after failing to settle differences with MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim.

The attacks, led by BIFF chief of staff Ustadz Carialan, were initiated during the Ramadhan “only demonstrate their disrespect for this holy month,” Deles said in a statement.

“The BIFM is not part of the MILF, and thus is not covered by any ceasefire agreement… Definitely, our government forces are ready for necessary defensive actions to protect and ensure the welfare of communities should the perpetrators launch attacks again. Pursuit operations against Carialan and his men are being conducted to bring them to the bar of justice,” she said.

Deles believes the BIFM’s attacks were meant to derail the peace process between the government and the MILF.

“We assure the public that these incidents will not affect the substantial gains that we have carefully and persistently built with our counterparts… we remain firm in our resolve to continue engaging the MILF in the negotiation table until we are able to reach an agreement to finally resolve the conflict in Mindanao,” she said. (John Roson)

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