Philippine fighting kills over 50
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine military will step up offensives against Muslim rebels after it lost 26 soldiers in the heaviest fighting in the volatile south in nearly three years, the head of the armed forces said on Friday.
General Hermogenes Esperon said two extra battalions would be sent to the remote southern island of Jolo, where clashes between troops and Muslim separatists killed at least 58 people on Thursday.
"I'm very sad but it doesn't mean we will give up," Esperon told reporters. "We will not stop, we will go after them. We expect fiercer battles."
The army shelled Muslim rebel positions and raked them with helicopter fire overnight but suspended operations on Friday following a request from the provincial governor.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim rebel group that signed a peace deal with the largely Catholic central government in 1996, said its members were involved and that it had asked the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to help stop the fighting.
"We informed the OIC of the current situation through e-mails and a fax direct to Jeddah," said Hatimil Hassan, the MNLF deputy head and an elected member of the regional legislative assembly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Fighting has been confined to a small part of the island of Jolo but there were dangers that it could spill over to nearby areas and other rebel groups could take advantage of the situation, Hassan told reporters.
The military said the rebels were from Abu Sayyaf but the less radical MNLF said its cadres were involved. Unlike Abu Sayyaf, the more secular MNLF has no known links to regional Islamic militant network Jemaah Islamiah.
Most MNLF leaders joined the government after the group signed the 1996 peace deal, which was brokered by the OIC.
Local officials said Jolo had been tense because the military had begun collecting unlicensed firearms from villagers as a part of a wider drive in the Mindanao region. The Tausug tribe that dominates the local population on Jolo prizes weapons.
Discontent has also been simmering among MNLF cadres because the government wants to sign a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim secessionist group. The MNLF says the government should first fulfill obligations due to it from the 1996 agreement.
The fighting started on Thursday when gunmen ambushed a group of soldiers on their way to a market in Maimbung town to buy food, local military commander Major-General Ruben Rafael said. Ten soldiers were killed and one was wounded.
In gunbattles later in the day, at least 16 soldiers were killed, said Major Eugene Batara, a spokesman in Zamboanga city. At least 31 rebels were killed and 25 wounded, he said. One boy was killed in crossfire.
A senior MNLF leader said he was worried the fighting could delay three-party talks between the rebel group, the Philippine government and the OIC that are to be held in Indonesia later this month on implementing the 1996 deal.
"We're beginning to doubt the sincerity of the government in carrying out its commitments under the 1996 peace agreement," said Parouk Hussin, head of the foreign relations panel of the MNLF.
"It's all in the hands of the military whether the peace pact would still hold," Hussin told Reuters, adding the violence could escalate into a full-blown conflict.
The MNLF fought the government for decades until the 1996 agreement. In late 2004, MNLF members fought with troops on Jolo demanding their leader Nur Misuari be freed from jail and scores were killed on both sides.
The army has said about 100 rebels from the Abu Sayyaf and a rogue faction of the MNLF were believed to be involved in the latest fighting.
Due to family ties on Jolo, there are close links between the Abu Sayyaf, MNLF and MILF and sometimes an overlap in membership.
The islands of the southern Philippines, especially Jolo and nearby Basilan, are hotbeds of extremism. They are also home to pirate gangs that prey on shipping in the South China Sea.
About 13,000 Philippine troops are on the islands to contain about 2,000 rebels. About 100 U.S. special forces are also on Jolo to help train the Philippine military but they are forbidden from fighting under Philippine law.
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this