MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) occupied a school and held hostages in North Cotabato's Pigcawayan town following clashes with government troops Wednesday morning, June 21.
Hundreds of gunmen initially attacked a lightly guarded military outpost in the North Cotabato town at dawn, with many withdrawing but about 30 then taking over the school and using civilians as human shields, the military said.
"As of now they are in the school holding the civilians. They are using them as human shields," Captain Arvin Encinas, spokesman for the army division with responsibility for the area, told Agence France-Presse by phone
He added the gunmen had planted improvised bombs around the school.
Encinas said he did not know how many hostages had been taken, or if they included children. In an earlier interview with the media, Encinas said around 12 civilians were taken hostage, but this number was subject to further validation.
An initial police report said that there were 5 hostages, all students of Malagakit Elementary School, but the military later clarified that none of the hostages were students.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla confirmed in a Palace news briefing late Wednesday morning that the BIFF members had taken hostages which they used as "human shields," but he had no information at the time on whether they had been released.
"In the withdrawal phase of the armed group, they used some civilians as human shields....We are just ascertaining if they have released at least 5 civilians they have held [hostage]," Padilla said.
In an interview on Brigada News FM Wednesday morning, BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama confirmed their men launched the attack on Pigcawayan but denied that they held the "teachers and students" hostage. He claimed that the BIFF members just "secured" them to "protect them" following the clash.
Padilla said during the late morning Palace briefing that the incident had been "resolved."
"Umatras na po ang kalaban (The enemy has retreated)....It's already resolved," Padilla said in response to questions about the incident.
He said the area had been secured, and troops were on "pursuit mode" against the BIFF.
However about 6 hours later, Encinas reported the hostage crisis at the school. Padilla then appeared on television and confirmed militants were occupying the school.
Encinas and Padilla said there had also been skirmishes throughout the day outside of Pigcawayan, which is surrounded by marshlands, mountains, and farmlands.
Responding to questions in the morning news conference, Padilla described the BIFF attack as an "opportunistic activity" rather than a diversionary tactic. He also noted that since the incident happened between 5 am and 6 am, less people were affected.
"They are taking advantage of the situation. [They think] that we have a very lightly defended outpost and they think our forces are elsewhere in the province. Our forces are spread all over. We have been facing many fronts pero maayos na na-assign lahat ng puwersa na harapin ang mga banta (but all the forces have been properly assigned to respond to any threat)," he said.
When asked, Padilla said the attack could not be called a "spillover" of the Marawi clashes, since the BIFF came from elsewhere.
Chief Inspector Realan Mamon did not dismiss the possibility that the attack was meant to veer the military's attention from the Marawi siege. Mamon said in a radio interview that the attack could be a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on local terrorists in Marawi, which is 160 kilometers from the North Cotabato town.
Early morning attack
The police said a firefight erupted after 300 "fully armed" BIFF fighters launched early morning attacks on a Barangay People's Augmentation Team (BPAT) outpost in Barangay Malagakit and a CAFGU detachment in Barangay Simsiman. The police said the gunmen were reportedly led by commanders identified as Abunawas Damiog, Abu Zaiden, and Abu Sala.
At least two CAFGU members were injured, according to police.
Pigcawayan Mayor Eliseo Garsesa placed the number of gunmen at around 200.
The police said Pigcawayan police helped the local government evacuate affected civilians. They had also set up checkpoints, secured the municipal building, and coordinated with barangay officials and the military on the incident.
Around 513 people were evacuated from Barangay Malagakit to the poblacion, and also from Banucagon and Panatan, the police said.
The attack happened as the military accused the BIFF of planning to reinforce the terrorists fighting troops in Marawi City. (READ: 62 soldiers, cops killed in 4-week Marawi crisis)
Sources said, however, that a BIFF faction responsible for Wednesday's attack had no links to ISIS. The BIFF supposedly suffered a split after the death of founder Ameril Umra Kato in 2015.
The BIFF is a breakaway group of the dominant Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is talking peace with the Philippine government. (READ: 4 PH terror groups link up with pro-ISIS fighters in region)
The BIFF broke away from the MILF as it differed with the latter in its demands from the government. – With reports from Bea Cupin, Pia Ranada, Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com