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(Updated 11:51 a.m.) Exactly a month after the Jan. 25 bloody Mamasapano clash in Maguindanao, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. ordered an all-out offensive operation against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Catapang said he instructed members of the military's Western Mindanao Command to coordinate with the Philippine National Police in a joint enforcement operation against the BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The military chief made the order amid fighting between the MILF and BIFF, which broke out in Pagalungan town in Maguindanao about two weeks ago due to rido or clan war, displacing about 10,000 residents in the town and in nearby Pikit town.
Catapang said he intends to protect the communities against the armed attacks by the BIFF.
"I am saddened by the news that at least 20,000 people had been displaced by the violent attacks perpetrated by the BIFF in the hinterland villages. We will do our best to protect the people and allow them to go back to their homes," he said.
For his part, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin over the weekend said the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, launched an operation last Saturday morning in support of the MILF, which signed a peace accord with the government in March last year.
Gazmin said the military is giving the MILF the “operational support.”
The military campaign against the BIFF came after the Mamasapano bloodbath, where MILF and BIFF forces engaged police commandos in a fierce gunbattle, leaving 44 police commandos dead.
The troopers were then on a mission to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifi bin Hir alias Marwan of Jemaah Islamiyah and Filipino bomb maker and Abu Sayyaf member Basit Usman.
The elite police men managed to kill Marwan, but Usman, BIFF's Special Operations Group head also allied with the Jemaah Islamiyah, had escaped.
Gazmin had assured the public that amid clashes in Pikit, civilians who may be caught in the firefights have long been evacuated.
Gazmin said he coordinated with Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman to ensure civilians will be out of harm’s way.
For his part, Catapang directed his commanders to support the DSWD and local government units of Pagalungan and Pikit in providing humanitarian assistance to the innocent civilians who were displaced from their homes "due to the sporadic attacks launched by the BIFF."
Meanwhile, he also reminded his men to conduct operations within the framework of the ceasefire mechanisms "in order to avoid clashes with the MILF." —Amanda Fernandez/KG, GMA News