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(UPDATED) Maguindanao highway temporarily closed due to BIFF harassments

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/06 August) – The Guindulungan-Shariff Aguak portion of the Cotabato-General Santos highway has been ordered closed temporarily while soldiers conduct clearing operations following the series of harassments late Sunday night by elements of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Maj. Gen. Ray Ardo,  chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division told MindaNews the temporary closure of the highway from Guindulungan, Maguindanao to Shariff Aguak also in Maguindanao, is merely preemptive, to ensure the safety of the travelers.

The BIFF, whose leader, Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato, broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in December 2009, simultaneously harassed five Army detachments, mostly along the highway, at around 11:30 p.m. Sunday but no one was reported injured.

The attacks came on the eve of the resumption of the peace talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both panels have repeatedly expressed optimism a peace agreement could be signed within the year.

Attacked were the detachments along the highway in Bagan, Talayan, Maguindanao; two detachments in Crossing Salbo in Datu Saudi Ampatuan;  one in Meta in Datu Unsay town and another at the back of the 1st Mechanized Brigade.

As of  12 noon, the stretch of the highway was still closed to traffic. Vehicles bound for either Cotabato or General Santos were asked to take the longer route via Midsayap-Kabacan-Buluan.

BIFF spokesperson Abumisry Mama confirmed the attacks, claiming it was part of their retaliatory attacks against the military for the alleged killing of one of their comrades and their own sympathy attack for their comrades in Basilan who engaged in a firefight against the military there.

Expelled by MILF

Ardo said they are still determining who ordered the BIFF elements to attack given that its founder and leader, Kato, who suffered a stroke in November last year, is believed to have been  rendered incapacitated.

MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq told MindaNews they have “strictly advised our troops (Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces) to stay put in their position in order to prevent a misencounter (with the military).”

The government and the MILF have an existing ceasefire agreement.

Kato, former commander of the 105th Base Command, was expelled by the MILF in September last year after a series of dialogues with him failed.

Two months later, in November, just a few days after Moro National Liberation Front chair Nur Misuari visited him, Kato was reported to have suffered a stroke. He was also reported to have died, a report the BIFF denied. BIFF spokesperson Mama in late November said Kato was “still recovering from poor health but we can assure you he is alive.”

The media-savvy Kato, however, has not made any public appearance and has not granted any interview even if by telephone, since he was reported to have suffered a stroke in November.  Reports reaching the military said Kato is still alive but is incapacitated.

Kato  resigned from his post in a letter to the MILF’s Central Committee in December 2009 and set up the BIFF in March 2010.

The MILF Central Committee on September 22, 2011 passed a resolution formally expelling Kato. But part of the resolution read that if Kato and his followers “make amends and be repentant,” the door of the MILF “is still wide open.”

Kato is facing multiple murder cases in various courts for launching attacks in North Cotabato in 2008 after the botched signing of Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain leading to the death of many civilians. The attack also displaced thousands of residents in North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces

Stranded

Emilio Escobillo, chair of the Biocrest Multi-Purpose Cooperative and Transport Services, which operates the Husky Bus that serves the General Santos-Koronadal-Cotabato route, told MindaNews eight of their buses have been stranded coming from both sides (Cotabato and General Santos).

“We are not rerouting our buses (using the Midsayap-Kabacan-Buluan highway) because it might send the perception that the skirmishes have worsened,” he said.

Around 300 passengers have been stranded since the first trips on both ways have been advised not to proceed, he added.

Escobillo said the have incurred an estimated P200,000 loss in terms of income particularly since it is a Monday, when workers return to their places of employment.

He said their buses were stopped in Talitay from Cotabato and Shariff Aguak from General Santos, adding they were waiting for the clearance from the military to proceed.

He added they have been advised not to  use the Midsayap-Kabacan-Buluan route anymore since there was also a reported skirmish in Pikit, North Cotabato.

There are two ways to proceed to General Santos from Cotabato or from Cotabato to General Santos. The first is through the Cotabato-General Santos highway passing through Datu Odin Sinsuat all the way to Esperanza in Sultan Kudarat then on to South Cotabato. The other route is through the Midsayap-Kabacan-Buluan route.

Escobillo told MindaNews that they were advised on Saturday by the military about the pending attack from the BIFF.

He said he hopes the situation would not escalate into a full-blown war between the military and the BIFF.

Husky is the only bus company plying the cities of General Santos, Koronadal and Cotabato. It is based in General Santos City. (Ferdinandh B. Cabrera/MindaNews with reports from Bong Sarmiento and Carolyn O. Arguillas)

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