Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Four soldiers and 56 Muslim rebels have been killed so far in an offensive launched - over the weekend - by Manila security forces against guerrilla groups who oppose the peace agreement in southern Philippines.
The military sources said the objective of the assault were militiamen of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) in two different towns in Maguindanao province, 960 km south of the capital. At least 80 thousand people have been displaced by the offensive that will be intensified in the coming days.
Local sources said that one of the militants killed is "foreign" and could be among those on a list of potential terrorists compiled by the United States.
Military spokesman Captain Joann Petinglay confirmed that two days of fighting has left at least 14 dead on both sides; the battle was concentrated around the towns of Datu Piang, Mamasapano, Maguindanao and Shariff Saydona, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). "We're still hunting for two units of Biff" added the officer, "one of at least 100 men, and the other with about 50".
Bangsamoro is a historical region within the Philippines with a predominantly Muslim population, that has been affected by decades of civil war between the central government and Moro guerrillas (a Muslim ethnic group that inspired the first guerrilla war for independence) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which first sought independence and later settled for broad autonomy.
The Biff is an off shoot of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which, in 2012, signed a peace agreement with the central government. The deal provides for the creation of a Muslim autonomous entity in the southern region of Mindanao, by the end of 2016.
Signed by MILF
and Manila, it aims to put an end to the violence, but extremist groups
against the deal - such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) and
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - have tried several times to hinder it.
Recently, the Philippine military launched a massive offensive, a month after the massacre of 44 police officers at the hands of BIFF, during an anti-terrorist operation that was to lead to the capture of suspected Islamist militants. The raid has drawn criticism and triggered the worst political crisis of recent years, which has not even spared the Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
Some MPs have
pointed to a possible US military role in the disastrous operation last
January. Critics refer to reports that a US drone flew over the area during the
assault, showing Washington experts the failure in real time. Philippine Senate
President Franklin Drilon asked if the FBI or the US armed forces personnel
"knew in advance about the operation."
A US government official - according to agreements Washington troops cannot be involved in fighting on Philippine territory - says that the US military have contributed to evacuation operations. However, he adds, the operation was "planned and executed by the Philippine authorities".
The failure of the raid has damaged, perhaps irreparably, the image of President Aquino and led to the resignation of the police chief. Both houses of parliament have opened an investigation, but there was no official confirmation regarding the involvement of the United States, although there is a climate of secrecy and confidentiality around the issue for "national security reasons".