ZAMBOANGA CITY – Over 2,000 people have been affected and displaced by a massive military operation against pro-ISIS militants in the restive southern Filipino province of Basilan, officials said Sunday.
The operation, which began after the July 31 suicide bombing in Lamitan City that left 11 people dead, targeted the Abu Sayyaf group, whose leaders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Many of those displaced by the military operation were from the town of Tuburan, a known stronghold of militants fighting for the establishment of a caliphate. The local mayor, Jamar Jamiri, who is among those affected by the operation, said nearly 400 families had been trapped in their homes and could not leave for fear of being caught in the crossfire.
“Nahihirapan po yung mga pamilyang apektado ng operation dahil simula nung umpisa, hindi na nakalabas yung mga kababayan natin dito sa Tuburan proper,” he said, adding, their livelihood was affected as well. “Nahinto ang kanilang kabuhayan at yun iba hindi na makapunta sa bukid habang ang iba hindi na makapangisda.”
Nurin Salih, a municipal social welfare officer, said 705 families from different villages, including Tuburan proper, Languyan, Langgung and Buton were all affected by the military operation. “A total of 2,181 individuals fled their homes for fear of being hurt during firefight,” Salih said in a report released by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Jo Henry, communications officer of the ARMM – Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team, said Governor Mujiv Hataman has already visited the affected communities and distributed relief goods and food packs to displaced families.
Hataman earlier condemned the senseless attack in Lamitan City and vowed to exert efforts to help the families affected by the bombing. “We will strengthen efforts to secure our region without compromising the rights of the Bangsamoro,” he said.
Colonel Fernando Reyeg, commander of a military task force in Basilan pursuing the militants, has assured the safety of civilians and said those who evacuated can now return to their villages.
No other details were made available by the military on the ongoing operations against the Abu Sayyaf, but Defense chief Delfin Lorenzana said at least 6 foreign militants are believed hiding in Basilan, one of 5 provinces under the Muslim autonomous region.
Lorenzana said the attack was believed carried out by a Moroccan militant.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the suicide attack in a post on its Amaq News Agency and said a Moroccan man, Abu Katheer al Maghribi, had carried out the daring assault against Filipino soldiers.
Lamitan Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay, quoting a report by witnesses, said the bomber who was driving a van laden with explosives, appeared to be a foreigner and could not speak the local dialect when stopped by soldiers at the army checkpoint.
The powerful explosion obliterated the vehicle and left a huge crater and among those killed were a woman and a child; and the militia commander whose unit is under the supervision of the Philippine Army. Five soldiers and several civilians were also wounded in the explosion.
Reports said the bomber came from a nearby town and heading to downtown Lamitan when his vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint.
“We’ll did he die, we don’t know. Maybe he is that guy. Meron pang agam-agam kung siya talaga ‘yun e. Pero sa akin mukhang qualifications point that he is the guy,” CNN Philippines quoted Lorenzana as saying in an interview on August 10.
Lorenzana said the bomber blew up his van loaded with explosives at the checkpoint to evade capture, adding, the militant was targeting a gathering of students in Lamitan. “Wala na siyang magawa eh, mahuhuli na siya eh. So sabi niya, suicide na lang siya, but he would not, he was not, that was not the intention,” he said.
Just this year, ARMM launched Program Against Violent Extremism (PAVE) aimed at solving the issue of the growing number of terrorist groups in the region that saw the surrender of dozens of Abu Sayyaf fighters.
Divided into three pillars namely good governance, effective law enforcement, and community participation, Hataman said PAVE is the first of its kind in the history of ARMM and is the regional government’s response to prevent rebel returnees from going back to lawless activities through the provision of opportunities to start anew. (Mindanao Examiner)
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