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Military repulses BIFF attack in N. Cotabato

By: With a report from Aaron Recuenco

MARAWI CITY (AP) – Hundreds of gunmen attacked troops in a southern Philippine village on Wednesday in a hit-and-run assault that may have been intended to help Islamist militants engaged in a nearby urban war, authorities said.
Five civilians who were used as human shields were missing, and soldiers were pursuing the assailants who had quickly retreated, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila.

Padilla said the gunmen attacked a military outpost at daybreak in Pigkawayan, a farming town about 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Marawi city where fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) group have been battling troops for a month.

The attack could be a diversionary tactic to ease pressure on the militants in Marawi, local police commander Chief Inspector Realan Mamon said on radio.

Padilla said the attackers belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), one of four armed groups in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao that analysts say have pledged allegiance to IS.

He said the gunmen attacked the lightly defended outpost, then exchanged fire with troops.

“It’s already resolved. The enemy has withdrawn… they failed,” Padilla said, adding that troops were in pursuit of the militants.

Local authorities initially reported the gunmen had occupied a school before students arrived.

But Padilla made no mention of any incident at the school.

It was recalled that the Maasin Police Station in Iloilo were raided by communist rebels where they carted away several high-powered firearms and communication equipment.

The raid resulted in the relief of the entire Maasin Police Force and the provincial director of Iloilo.

The area around Pigkawayan is made up of marshlands, mountains and farmlands.

Padilla said there were no confirmed casualties but the military had yet to locate the five people initially used as human shields.

Pigkawayan town mayor Eliseo Garsesa said about 200 gunmen were involved, while a police report said there were about 300.

Padilla said the BIFF, a small insurgent group believed to have just a few hundred fighters, had seemingly sought to capitalise on the military being focused on the Marawi war.