PIGCAWAYAN, North Cotabato–Some 200 to 300 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked a military detachment in Barangay Malagakit, taking elementary students hostage and torching the school as fighting spread to populated areas of this town.
Authorities said the BIFF first attacked a military detachment manned by few Army personnel and members of the village patrol in Malagakit.
Pigcawayan Mayor Eliseo Garcesa Jr. said residents fled after the attack started 4 a.m., but an undetermined number of them were held hostage.
Mashod Hadji Ibrahim Salik, a volunteer of the local Ceasefire Watch, said his group has received reports that the attackers had killed eight civilians and burned down the school before withdrawing but this information could not be confirmed.
Capt. Arvin John Ensinas, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the BIFF took 12 students from the nearby Malagakit Elementary School to use as human shields before withdrawing after security forces retaliated.
Minutes after the BIFF struck, members of the 34th Infantry Battalion immediately reinforced the village watchmen and engaged the BIFF attackers in fierce fighting.
A Civilian Armed Auxiliary was wounded in the clash.
As fighting spread, several hundred civilians fled their homes. Encinas said his troops had difficulty getting to the BIFF guerrillas because they held civilians.
BIFF spokesman Abu Misri claimed responsibility for the attack, but said his men took civilians “to protect them from the crossfire.”
He said they would be freed in due time.
A local official confirmed that the BIFF guerrillas set the school building on fire, but could not say if initial reports that a number of residents were locked inside one of the classrooms was true.
Government troops pursued the fleeing BIFF fighters.
A police contingent was also deployed on the periphery of Pigcawayan to augment the military’s dragnet.
Later reports said the same group of BIFF fighters ransacked Baragay Simsiman, an old Moro settlement in Pigcawayan.
The attack could be a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on the militants in Marawi, local police commander Chief Inspector Realan Mamon said in a radio interview.
Malagakit is a peaceful neigborhood populated by fewer than 1,000 people, both Muslims and Christians. On any given weekend, however, the population swells as tourists flock to the Malagakit Lake Resort, a popular destination. With AFP
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