“The enemy made a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind 31 hostages, among them 12 youngsters,” a military spokesman, Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, said, as quoted by Reuters. 20 others, caught in the crossfire, have also been freed.
“It’s over… but we’re also on guard because they might carry out other attacks,” Padilla added.
Government troops have been engaging members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) after the terrorists partly overran the village of Malagakit, located just outside of Pigcawayan town, Chief Inspector Realan Mamon said.
According to Padilla, 50 Islamist fighters raided the Christian-Muslim village. Earlier police reports said there were nearly 300 armed men.
The police chief confirmed that the militants entered the village shortly after 5:00am on Wednesday.
The assailants, however, claimed that they did not take people hostage, but were merely protecting them from government troops, promising to release civilians.
“We protected them [the hostages] from the bullets from [the] Army. We will release them later. We did not use them as human shields,” BIFF spokesman Abu Mama Misri told the Inquirer on the phone.
Pigcawayan Mayor Eliseo Garsesa revealed that authorities had received intelligence reports about text message chatter that the “armed groups were coming.” Garsesa, however, said that such messages were common, and it could not always be verified, the Manila Times reports.
Initially, the Philippines Army was unable to determine whether there had been any captives and whether students and teachers were among them.
The gunmen targeted an army outpost and a patrol base of a pro-government militia, before being repelled by army units, Restituto Padilla said, according to the Sun Star. The raid, he added, was aimed at disrupting the ongoing government offensive against the ISIS-linked Maute group.
“If this is a diversionary move, it’s not the first by these BIFF gunmen,” Padilla said. “They have tried to attack more than once and all have been thwarted.”
For almost a month now, the Philippines Army has been battling radical Islamist militants in Marawi, the capital of the country’s second largest island, Mindanao.
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Apart from the main Maute terrorist group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), there are around 20 other foreign and local jihadist cells, including BIFF, operating in Mindanao, Solicitor General Jose Calida revealed on Monday.
“In addition to ISIS-linked local rebel groups, there are also ISIS cell groups that operate all over Mindanao. These cell groups conduct coordinated attacks with the aforesaid rebel groups,” Calida said.
The death toll from the fighting in the Philippines has so far surpassed 300. According to official government figures, 225 militants, 59 soldiers, and 26 civilians have been killed in the clashes.
On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte warned of a full-scale civil war if the ongoing violence spills into other parts of Mindanao. He urged the local separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which was recently offered some kind of autonomy, to “take care of the area they want” and join the fight against foreign-influenced Maute and other terrorist cells.
“Because if there’s civil war, there would be killings. Here in Mindanao, there are more Christians and they have better guns. They are buying. The rich ones, they’re stockpiling guns,” Duterte said, according to the Inquirer. “That’s what’s dangerous. To prevent a communal war, we really need to stop this.”