GENERAL SANTOS CITY – Government soldiers prevented a group of reporters from going to an evacuation center where civilians sought refuge following attacks by renegade Moro rebels at military detachments in the town of Guindulungan in Maguindanao, a southern province in the Philippines.
The Philippine military earlier closed the national highway that connects Cotabato City and General Santos when heavily armed members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) launched simultaneous attacks Tuesday morning as ‘punitive actions’ against government soldiers.
The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) immediately condemned what it later described as arbitrary detention.
“The journalists who were prevented from doing their work are professionals who have been covering the conflict in the province for years and have always acquiesced to authorities in matters of safety, especially in dangerous situations,” the NUJP said in a statement.
However, NUJP said the reason given by the unnamed Army officer why reporters were not allowed to visit an evacuation center that was kilometers away from the fighting “was because they were from the media.”
“To make the situation worse, even as the journalists and the IMT monitors were stuck on the highway, the soldiers allowed another NGO to proceed to the evacuation center,” the NUJP further said.
A similar incident occured in 2009 when “50 journalists on their way to Guindulungan, Maguindanao to cover internal refugees from the fighting between the military and MILF were also detained by the military.
“In a chilling postscript to the 2009 incident, several weeks later, 32 journalists were among the 58 persons slaughtered in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre,” NUJP added.
The BIFF is a breakaway group from the Moro Islamic Liberation Forces (MILF) which vowed to pursue a separatist state.
The MILF has signed the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (FAB) in a bid to end the more four decades of armed conflict in Mindanao. It has also agreed on wealth sharing as the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF near its conclusion.
The BIFF however is opposed to the FAB and vowed to pursue its armed struggle against the Philippine government.
The BIFF is headed by Ameril Umra Kato, a senior member of the MILF before he broke away from the main Moro rebel group.
In 2008, Kato led fierce gunbattle against the government which left scores of combatants and civilians dead.
Tens of thousands also fled their homes as the armed clashes escalated for several weeks.
Kato is said to have suffered a debilitating stroke and is incapacitated, leaving the BIFF to younger and more militant commanders.
In a document obtained by Asian Correspondent, a risk control organization has recommended extra precaution in traveling to cities and urban centers in Mindanao following the bomb explosion in Cagayan de Oro City which it blames on the BIFF.
The sender of the document requested not to name the risk control organization that made the report.