MANILA, July 4 (Xinhua) -- More civilians are forced to flee as army troops clash with Islamist militants that attempted to occupy a town in the southern Philippines, the military said on Wednesday.
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, commander of the armys 33rd Infantry Battalion, said 500 residents left their village in Datu Paglas, a town in Maguindanao province, on Tuesday when troops launched an offensive against a group of Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) under Sulaiman Tudon.
Cabunoc said four BIFF militants were killed and two others wounded in Tuesdays clash that lasted seven hours. Two soldiers and a militia man were also wounded, he added.
Cabunoc said security forces foiled the fresh attempt of the pro-Islamic militants to occupy the town.
Tuesday's firefight in Datu Paglas was a spillover of the militarys ongoing offensives launched two weeks ago against the BIFF around the Liguasan Marsh in North Cotabato and Maguindanao.
The Initiatives for International Dialogue (IDD), a peace-building non-government organisation based in Mindanao, said in a statement that approximately 5,136 families or 23,465 individuals were forced to flee the municipalities in Pagalungan, Datu Montawal, Sultan sa Barongis, General SK Pendatun and Pikit.
This number of displaced villagers is expected to rise as military operations intensify and the BIFF is anticipated to retaliate, the IDD said.
IID executive director Gus Miclat expressed concern over the safety of the civilians caught in the conflict.
In the immediate future, aside from ensuring the safety and security of civilians in the conduct of military operations by the government forces, we invoke the states responsibility to protect and fulfill the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) during evacuation until their safe and dignified return to their places of origin, Miclat said.
Miclat added, "We are seriously alarmed and bothered by the possible extent of civilian casualties - most of whom are women and children - if this conflict will continue. Worse, this is happening amidst all big talks about a peace process addressing the roots of conflict in Mindanao? This has to stop."
More than eight months after Philippine security forces liberated Marawi City from IS militants that occupied the southern Philippine city in May 2017, thousands of Marawi residents continue to live in evacuation centers set up by the government.