MANILA - Hundreds of Muslim rebels raided early on Wednesday (June 21) a southern Philippine village, attacking a military outpost and briefly occupying a school in what security officials dismissed as “an opportunistic activity”.
Initial reports said about 300 gunmen from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a group linked to the ultra-radical
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), stormed Malagakit village, in Pigcawayan town, North Cotabato province, at dawn. They attacked a small militia camp outpost and later occupied a school.
Malagakit is 190km south of Marawi city, where government troops and another group of extremists have been clashing for a fifth week.
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, later told reports that by noon, the situation “had been addressed… The enemy has withdrawn. They tried to enter (the village), and they failed. They’re no longer there. The school is secured”.
“What the BIFF did was an opportunistic activity… They were taking advantage of a situation where we have lightly defended outposts, and they thought our forces are elsewhere. But that’s not the case. We may be facing many fronts, but our forces are spread all over to face all kinds of threats,” he said at a news briefing.
He said, though, that the rebels took five hostages during their retreat. None of them were pupils from the school.
“We are still ascertaining if they have released the five civilians they held,” he said.
He disclosed that a BIFF spokesman had said his group had no intention of keeping the hostages.
Brig-Gen Padilla said it was possible the attack was intended to disrupt an ongoing military offensive against a separate group of militants aligned with ISIS who laid siege on Marawi city, but dismissed suggestions that this could be an effort to open a new front in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao.
“It’s too small an effort. It’s just a harassment case… These harassments have been going on even before the Marawi incident.
They want to project that they’re still existing, but this is not something with the breadth or size of Marawi,” he said.
About 500 militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups stormed Marawi on May 23 in an audacious bid to turn this lakeside city into an ISIS “province”. They have since managed to hold on to four districts, despite dogged attempts by the military to dislodge them.
Solicitor-General Jose Calida earlier tagged the BIFF, and the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, as among at least 20 ISIS-linked groups now in Mindanao.
The BIFF is a splinter group of the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been holding peace talks with the government. It was carved out of the MILF’s 105th Base Command, under Ameril Umbra Kato.
Kato had refused to participate in “endless peace negotiations and forever ceasefire”, and sought a more hardline approach.
The BIFF later worked closely with Jemaah Islamiyah operatives in Mindanao led by Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.