ILIGAN CITY – The Philippine Government has called on members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a break-away group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), currently engaged in armed conflict with the government, to lay down their arms “and be part of the (peace) process.”

“We ask them to listen to the plea of their own brothers and sisters to give peace a chance,” government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement.

“Local government officials are ready to receive those who would like to silence their guns and participate in the different programs we will be undertaking as part of the implementation of the peace agreements,” Coronel-Ferrer explained.

“We know that BIFF members can also contact supporters or local ground commanders of the MILF who could facilitate their return to normal lives. These and other avenues are open for those among the BIFF who are ready to join us in our peace efforts,” she appealed.

Government security forces, in cooperation with the MILF, have been pounding on BIFF positions in Maguindanao for five days now.

The assault has started fresh from the signing of the Annex on Normalization to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and an Addendum on Bangsamoro Waters that ended 17 years of negotiations between government and the MILF for a political settlement to the Moro rebellion in Mindanao.

“The ongoing military operations are geared at degrading the BIFF’s capability to continue to cause harm to the government forces, civilians and the peace process,” said Coronel-Ferrer.

Coronel-Ferrer noted that the BIFF have “repeatedly harassed our soldiers and terrorized local communities” over the last nine months.

“They planted roadside bombs, sniped at our soldiers, took school teachers as hostages, and in one instance, even beheaded a civilian captive. A few days ago, in the midst of the fighting, they commandeered a private vehicle and forcibly used it as a roadblock,” she added.

MILF coordination

According to Coronel-Ferrer, the ceasefire mechanisms of the government and the MILF have ensured the safety of civilians in surrounding areas “prior to the conduct of the operations.”

MILF vice chairperson for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar in a phone interview said that the assault on the BIFF has been coordinated earlier with the group’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

“Relief provisions have been on standby to meet the basic needs of those who have been temporarily displaced,” Coronel-Ferrer assured.

She added that the government and the MILF “have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the operations will not spill over to involve MILF combatants or cause unnecessary or prolonged hardship to civilians.”

“The MILF is assisting in the operations by helping the government contain the movements of the BIFF,” she said.

Since October last year, the MILF has deployed BIAF forces for “active defense” of communities threatened by the BIFF headed by Ustadz Amelil Umra Kato who figured in accusations of ceasefire violations during the war in 2008.

The MILF’s initiative came amid the series of attacks by the BIFF in several communities of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao and North Cotabato since July last year.

“All of these acts are really meant to discredit, undermine, sabotage and spoil the peace process; and (these) have been inflicting enormous harm, pains and sufferings to the civilians. It has been blatantly and maliciously challenging the security forces of the government and MILF and the peace process as a whole,” the MILF said. (Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro)