MAMAPASANO, Philippines (Reuters) - The Philippine military on Tuesday ended a five-week all-out offensive against a small but violent splinter group of its largest Muslim rebel group, allowing around 90,000 displaced residents to return home.
Residents of the poor, marshy town of Mamasapano, 1,682 kilometers (1,045 miles) from the capital, Manila, chanted “Allahu Akbar” and applauded as the military chief said they could return to homes and farms, while the army hunts for members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) group.
“We will send army rangers to continue hunting down remnants of the BIFF because they operate at night,” armed forces chief Gregorio Pio Catapang told reporters. “Our brigades will go in areas where these armed groups will be sighted.”
The military said it had killed 139 rebels, captured bomb factories, safe havens and neutralized half the rebels’ ranks, leaving them in small splintered groups.
Some members of the BIFF, as well as the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), were said to be behind the killing of 44 police commandos in a firefight in January, when police tried to arrest two al Qaeda-linked militants.
“We are tired of fleeing our homes every time there’s a war in our village,” Karo Kasin, a 45-year old farmer, told Reuters. “I am for peace, I support the Bangsamoro Basic Law so that peace and development will come to our place.”
The proposed Bangsamoro Basic law aims at carving out a new autonomous area in the southern Philippines, and giving the Muslim minority greater political and economic power. Last week, President Benigno Aquino appealed to members of Congress to resume debates on the measure.
The government said it would spend 1.3 billion pesos ($29 million) to build schools, roads, bridges, clinics, water and irrigation systems in the town. As many as 120,000 residents were displaced after the offensive started in February, but some slowly returned to their villages as the offensive ebbed.
“Negotiation is the most practical and civilized way to end the conflict,” MILF spokesman Von al Haq told a ceremony to break ground for a new bridge near the site of January’s attack.
($1=44.705 Philippine pesos)
Writing by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Clarence Fernandez