ILIGAN CITY — The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has opened one of its stronghold areas in Lanao del Sur province to evacuees from the already week-long fighting between government troops and armed men locally known to harbor extremist ideals.
The arrangement to accommodate the evacuees in Barangay Sandab of Butig town was made through the peace mechanisms set up by the government and the MILF, according to a news release of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp).
Sandab village is a major bastion of the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), in Lanao del Sur, and hosts a satellite office of its peace-negotiating panel.
The Opapp quoted Ameruddin Usman, member of the MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), as saying the hosting of the evacuees were coordinated with the front commander in the area.
Usman estimated that “around 500 families were evacuated and secured in Barangay Sandab.”
He added that several more families “went to their respective relatives in the other barangays away from the encounter site.”
Major Carlos Sol Jr., head of the government contingent in the joint ceasefire committee, said Barangay Sandab has enough facilities like school houses to serve as temporary shelters for evacuees.
Apart from providing sanctuary to the evacuees, Sol stressed that the continued cooperation between government and the MILF was also shown by the BIAF’s decision to reposition its troops in Butig to prevent a mis-encounter with the Army.
Sol added that the repositioning of BIAF elements was also aimed “to give the government forces the freedom to pursue operations against the lawless group.”
The clashes in Butig — a town located in Lanao del Sur’s border with Maguindanao — started evening of Febuary 20 when armed men harassed a detachment of government soldiers in Barangay Bayabao. The fighting has spilled over to nearby Barangay Poktan.
On February 23, armed men ambushed soldiers in an area between Tugaya and Balindong towns, far across the vast Lake Lanao, in what was initially thought of as sympathy or diversionary attack to diffuse the strong military attention in Butig.
The military has described the perpetrators of the Butig attack as belonging to a group comprised of “foreign and local terrorists.”
But in Lanao del Sur, they are simply branded as “Isis” as a reference to their harboring of extremist ideals of jihad akin with that espoused by the Middle Eastern terrorist network Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, a local commander of the MILF in Lanao del Sur has denied the involvement of his troops in the recent clashes in the province.
In a 59-second video clip circulated in social media by the group named Free the Bangsamoro Movement, Abdullah Macapaar, known as Commander Bravo, categorically stated that the MILF is not part of the fighting in Butig and Balindong towns.
“The MILF continues to be a party to a peace process with government, and as such, we in the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces of the Northwestern Mindanao Front, will maintain our defensive posture,” Macapaar explained.
Macapaar also brushed aside reports he has cooperated with the local extremist group in Lanao del Sur. “I remain loyal to the MILF because its leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, is a faithful follower of Allah and the Prophet Mohammad,” Macapaar said.