Maguindanao town 'under control' after BIFF gunmen cause stir, fight with troops

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 8) — Government troops clashed with Islamist militants who caused a commotion in a public market in Datu Paglas town in Maguindanao early Saturday, according to military officials who said the situation is now "under control" after the gunmen fled.

Troops and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) clashed for "15 to 30 minutes," Maj. Gen. Juvymax Uy, 6th Infantry Division commander, told CNN Philippines. Uy said no one died or got hurt among security forces and civilians, but it remains unclear if any BIFF fighter was killed.

"Hindi namin, hindi ko ma-ascertain but definitely may tinamaan," he said, citing witnesses.

[Translation: We cannot, I cannot ascertain [if there are casualties] but definitely some got shot.]

There was no property damage, he added.

What happened?

At around 4 a.m., members of the BIFF Karialan Faction "threatened" some civilians in a public market in Barangay Poblacion, Lt. Col. John Paul Baldomar, 6th Infantry Division spokesman told reporters.

Baldomar said he cannot "ascertain" the exact number of BIFF rebels in the area, but some witnesses saw "more or less" 80 of them. Uy, meanwhile, said authorities spotted less than 20 rebels who were searching for food after clashing with troops in previous days.

Civilians fled the market "out of fear" and reported the rebels' presence to troops nearby, Baldomar said. Government forces immediately responded and evacuated those affected, he added. Troops cordoned off the portion of the Poblacion market and closed a part of the national highway in Datu Paglas for safety reasons. Some people were left stranded while the highway was being closed. As the rebel forces were "withdrawing" from the Maguindanao town, they fired shots at the national highway, prompting troops to fire back.

"Habang nandun pa sa area, may mga civilian kasi tayo na naipit nung sinarado yung highway, may mga civilian tayo na nandun sa part ng highway, ito ay pinaputukan ng mga armadong grupo kaya tayo ay nagretaliate...para maprotektahan yung mga civilian na ito at evacuate natin sila," Baldomar said.

[Translation: Shots were fired at the highway where stranded civilians were, so we retaliated to protect and evacuate the civilians.]

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, however, gave a different version of the story. He said the BIFF members came from General Salipada K. Pendatun town and went to the Datu Paglas town market to rest after running around for two days. They reportedly negotiated with the local government to stay in the area, but a clash erupted when officials consulted with the police and military.

"Nagpasamantala sila na tumigil dito para magpahinga at nakipagnegotiate sila sa LGU na payagan," Año told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Weekend. "Ang ating LGU naman ay nakipag-ugnayan sa pulis at sa militar, then nagkaroon ng engkwentro."

[Translation: They went to the market to rest and they negotiated with the LGU to let them stay. The LGU then coordinated with the police and the military but this led to an encounter.]

The secretary said there were only a few of BIFF gunmen during the fight, dismissing reports there were about a hundred involved. He added that no one was hurt and no property was damaged. Evacuees are also returning to their homes while pursuit operations against the militants continue.

CNN Philippines Correspondent David Santos contributed to this report