By Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Dozens of Filipino Muslim militants linked to the Islamic State attacked a southern Philippine town and engaged the military in a gunbattle Saturday until government troops drove them away, the military said.
The militants with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) group entered the town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao province at dawn and took over the main public market, said Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar, the local military spokesman.
“Panicked civilians ran for safety and reported to the authorities and our military forces near the area were dispatched,” Baldomar told BenarNews. “We immediately sent forces there to evacuate the civilians.”
“We have successfully driven them out and they scampered in various directions, although now, we are continuously monitoring the area, and our pursuit operations are ongoing,” Baldomar said.
There were no reports of any hostages being taken during the militants’ siege of the market.
The military locked down the highway leading into the town to ensure the public's safety, Baldomar said.
Bai Aliah Rahamin, who was stranded with her 4-year-old child, said they were supposed to go home from the hospital when authorities closed the highway to traffic.
“We have been here since early morning and we can’t go back because of the traffic,” Rahamin told BenarNews as she hid behind a tree beside an Army unit.
At first, the military allowed local civilian authorities to engage the BIFF fighters in a dialogue in a bid to resolve the situation, Baldomar said.
But the BIFF fighters fired at civilians still in the area, forcing the soldiers to shoot back, he said.
A brief gunbattle followed.
“A firefight was triggered when the armed men fired at civilian commuters who were trapped, forcing our forces to retaliate,” he said, adding there were no casualties on the government side.
“We fired back at the group to protect these civilians and evacuate them to safety,” he said, putting the number of the enemy fighters at between “80 and 100” based on reports by civilians on the ground.
It was not clear yet if the BIFF forces suffered casualties on Saturday, Baldomar said.
Troops also recovered four improvised bombs, which the BIFF militants had planted around the town and counter-militant clearance operations went on until Saturday afternoon, according to BenarNews correspondents at the scene.
The BIFF forces attacked Datu Paglas, a peaceful agricultural community of about 40,000 in the largely Muslim southern Philippines, as the holy month of Ramadan was nearing its end, the military said. It noted the militant group could be posturing to show that it remains a fighting force despite its dwindling size.
“They just want to show that they are still a force to reckon with, despite the number of surrenders and our troops successes on the field the past few months,” Baldomar said.
Datu Paglas Vice Mayor Mohammad Paglas offered a different take on the militants, saying many were between the ages of 15 and 25.
“They came on board five big trucks and told the village officials they just wanted to rest, so we allowed them because this is the fasting month of Ramadan,” he said, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.
Split from MILF
Believed to number in the few hundreds, the BIFF is a faction that split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest former separatist group, which now controls an autonomous region in the south after signing a peace pact with the Philippine government.
The BIFF itself, however, is divided into smaller factions, one of which is led by Abu Turaife. He has publicly pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and another faction is led by Ustadz Karialan (alias Imam Minimbang), whose forces are more loyal to BIFF’s separatist ideology.
The BIFF backed a five-month siege of Marawi, a city in another part of the south that was carried out by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern pro-IS fighters in 2017, but held off from sending its own fighters there.
In 2019, the BIFF was blamed for a series of bomb attacks in the south, including on a town market and at a restaurant in the town of Isulan that injured eight and 18 respectively.
And in March, 14 BIFF fighters were killed in clashes in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town, also in Maguindanao. Philippine authorities also tied BIFF to a series of violent incidents in the south last month linked to the group’s opposition to the establishment of a joint peacekeeping force between the MILF and the military.
“I thought because of the peace agreement, this would not happen anymore. But it seems nothing has changed,” said Bai Aliah Rahamin, the motorist stranded on the highway.