Philippines Jihad Update. “Philippine fighting kills over 50, more clashes,” from Reuters:
MANILA – 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 fulfil 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.
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.