Government troops carry the body of a slain soldier in Basilan province in southern Philippines in this library picture. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)
ZAMBOANGA CITY (Mindanao Examiner / Apr. 15, 2013) – Philippine troops attacked Monday a stronghold of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the restive province of Basilan, sparking a fierce firefight that left a still undetermined number of rebels dead and wounded.
The MILF, which is currently negotiating peace with Manila, accused the military of attacking its forces in Tipo-Tipo town. “The Philippine Army raided the forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front early morning today at Sitio Badja Maluha in Barangay Baguindan in Tipo-Tipo and MILF suffered scores of casualties,” the rebel group said.
But the military’s Western Mindanao Command said the offensive targeted the leaders of the militant Abu Sayyaf group – Isnilon Hapilon and Puruji Indama – who were behind the kidnapping of Australian adventurer Warren Rodwell.
Rodwell, kidnapped on December 2011 from his seaside house in Ipil town in Zamboanga del Sur province by gunmen who posed as policemen – was freed on March 2 after his Filipino wife, Miraflor Gutang paid P4 million ransom to the Abu Sayyaf, which originally demanded $2 million.
Army Col. Rolando Gregorio, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, insisted the operation was directed at the Abu Sayyaf and troops had killed 6 militants, although their bodies were not recovered.
“We would like to emphasize that the operation was conducted and directed only against the ASG terrorists with utmost consideration on the safety of MILF communities in the operational area,” Gregorio said, adding soldiers captured an Abu Sayyaf encampment and that operations still continue in the area.
But Abbas Salung, a senior member of the MILF cease-fire committee, has strongly denied the military’s claim, saying the operation targeted the MILF forces under rebel leader Ustadz Hamzah Sapanton.
He said: “The MILF-CCCH (Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities) and AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) were never coordinated by the government of the movements or any activity of the government forces in Baguindan, which is a known MILF community.”
Salung blamed the military for the violence in Basilan, one of five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region.
“Clearly there is a deliberate act to undermine the cease-fire and the peace talks between the Aquino government and the MILF, which only compounds the increasing doubts of the public over the sincerity of the government in the peace process,” he quoted Sapanton as saying after the fighting stopped.
He said the MILF would file a protest with the government cease-fire committee against the military for violating the truce.
“The encounter had already ceased, but actions must be undertaken by the government to avoid recurrence of the firefight between the government and MILF forces and to prove that the government forces are indeed upholding the policy of the Aquino government for the primacy of the peace process,” Salung said.
The military offensive came just as the MILF expressed concerns over so-called “spoilers” of the peace process.
“The sad part of this is the fact that spoilers do not only thrive outside the process. There are those who lurk within organization or government. They pretend to be on board the process, but truth is that they have their own agenda, contrary to the desired end state for the process, or more insensibly, undermining their principal’s official instruction,” the MILF said, adding peace negotiators must be vigilant in not allowing “moles” in their ranks.
Peace negotiators in October signed the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement which shall replace the current Muslim autonomous region. (Mindanao Examiner)