ZAMBOANGA CITY: At least three Army soldiers and five members of the former rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were killed in fierce clashes that erupted in the southern Philippine province of Basilan, security officials said Thursday.
Officials said 12 other soldiers and an undetermined number of MILF fighters were also wounded in the clashes in the township of Ungkaya Pukan, a major stronghold of the MILF which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.
Thousands of civilians have fled their homes to escape the clashes which broke out on Tuesday, November 8, in the town of Unkaya Pukan. Sporadic clashes have continued, with local media reports claiming that four soldiers had been captured and beheaded by MILF forces, and that one armored personnel carrier was torched by the gunmen.
But this was strongly denied by Lt. Col. Abdurasad Sirajan, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command. “Not true,” he told The Juan Kabayan without further elaborating.
1,500 families flee
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The MILF has confirmed the fighting that forced nearly 1,500 families to flee from at least six villages.
“The armed encounter between the Philippine Army’s 101st Infantry Brigade and elements of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces on November 8 in Barangay Ulitan in Ungkaya Pukan was an unfortunate incident that no one wanted to happen, especially during the implementation of the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro and while the peace process’ dividends started to be felt by the people,” said Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF’s peace panel.
He called on both sides to immediately stop fighting to prevent the situation from escalating and ensure the safety of the civilians. He also urged the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, to investigate the situation to ensure similar incidents will not happen again.
“Rest assured that, in partnership with the government peace panel, the MILF peace panel will strengthen the various peace mechanisms on the ground and implore them to uphold the principle of jointness and ensure that decisions shall always be bilateral in character. I also assure our partners and the peacebuilding community that the MILF is firmly committed to implementing the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro and realizing long-term peace, justice and prosperity in the Bangsamoro,” Iqbal said.
Appeal for ceasefire
Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman also urged the military and the MILF to cease fighting.
“We are calling both parties to have an immediate ceasefire. Now, the question is, why did these encounters happen, since we have a peace agreement?” asked Hataman, whose elder brother Jim Salliman is the provincial governor.
The 101st Infantry Brigade and the 1st Infantry Division have not released any statement about the clashes. The fighting occurred on the same day that unidentified gunmen killed four people, one of them Abaas Jangkatan, a suspected Abu Sayyaf fighter, in the September 15 ambush of three soldiers in Al-Barka town, also a known stronghold of the MILF.
The victims were asleep on a makeshift stage in Lamitan City when the gunmen sprayed them with automatic weapons.
Avoid further casualties
But the Navy Brig. Gen. Arturo Rojas, acting chief of the Western Mindanao Command, has ordered troops in the Muslim province to strengthen defensive position to avoid further casualties and collateral damage.
“I ordered the troops to strengthen their defensive position to avoid casualties and collateral damage. Reinforcing units were already identified for contingency and deterrence. However, their deployment as the situation develops and warrants shall be cleared with higher leadership. Nevertheless, my primary order is to protect the integrity of the peace process and abide by the ceasefire agreement. Rest assured that we are on top of the situation and we are for peace,” he said.
Rojas said they are now employing ceasefire mechanisms to pacify the situation and have been talking with the members of the MILF and government’s Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities in Basilan. He said David Diciano, assistant secretary for Normalization and vice chairman of the government Implementing Panel, is now at the Western Mindanao Command to help halt the tension “triggered by miscommunication.”
“We are grateful for the actions currently being undertaken by the BARMM and Basilan LGU to help us contain the situation so it won’t escalate. We appeal to the public not to spread gossip and unvalidated information in order not to aggravate the situation,” he said.