ZAMBOANGA CITY—All eight Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas killed in a clash with Abu Sayyaf bandits on Jolo island were beheaded.
With 18 of the bandits also dead, 26 people were killed altogether in the gun battle between the Abu Sayyaf and MNLF guerrillas who are trying to secure the release of hostages kept for months in the Jolo jungles, according to police and MNLF tallies released Monday.
Two Filipino hostages—both television crewmen—were recovered on Saturday night hours before the bloody confrontation between the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf in the municipality of Patikul in the Sulu archipelago.
Malacañang welcomed the recovery of the two hostages and said civilians were being evacuated to the town center to keep them away from the fighting. Government troops were not involved in the encounter.
“We have suffered heavy casualties in cleaning Sulu of bad elements. We lost eight martyrs. They were beheaded,” an MNLF official told the Inquirer on the phone, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk about the incident.
Three MNLF members were also wounded in the clash that began at
7 a.m. on Sunday and lasted until late afternoon, according to the MNLF official, who was monitoring the situation.
Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra, police chief of Sulu, gave a slightly lower figure—seven—on the number of MNLF men killed. Freyra put down at 18 the number of Abu Sayyaf fatalities.
“What we are concerned about right now is the possible retaliation from either side,” Freyra said, adding at least 60 families had fled their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
Military not intruding
Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said government forces were not intervening in the fight between the two Moro groups.
“It’s difficult to get involved because it might appear that we have something to do with this,” he said.
The MNLF signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996.
“Given the magnitude of a Muslim beheading a Muslim, this is not good,” said Octavio Dinampo, a Sulu-based professor of Mindanao State University and provincial coordinator of the truce watchdog Bantay Ceasefire. “This indicates that the Abu Sayyaf suffered heavy casualties.”
Dinampo said initial reports indicated that the men under MNLF leader Ustadz Habier Malik were ambushed by the Abu Sayyaf. He said the MNLF guerrillas, unlike the Abu Sayyaf, did not know the terrain in Patikul as most of them came from Parang town.
“That’s why the Abu Sayyaf got the better of them (naisahan sila),” he said.
Dinampo said Malik’s group clashed with a band led by Julasiman Sawadjaan, who is believed to be holding Jordanian television journalist Baker Atyani, Japanese treasure hunter Mamaito Katayama, and two other Filipinos—Edmund Gumbahali, a consultant of the Non-Violent Peace Force, and Carlos Tee, an airport engineer of Jolo Airport.
There is no word on what happened to these other captives.
The fighting between the two Moro groups subsided on Monday after the Abu Sayyaf gunmen split into smaller groups, with a large group seen fleeing from Patikul to an adjacent town. But clashes could erupt again, police said.
Malacañang allayed fears that the fighting would spread.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said at a press briefing in Malacañang that the clashes were taking place in a “specific isolated area” in Jolo and that “there is no fear of a spillover.”
Lacierda said the government had begun moving civilians from the site of the clashes to evacuation centers run by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman was overseeing this.
Malacañang said it had yet to get a complete report on why it was the MNLF that clashed with the Abu Sayyaf.
The MNLF was the largest secessionist group in the southern Philippines until it forged a peace agreement with the government. The Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF), which split from the MNLF, signed a preliminary peace deal with the government last October.
Lacierda expressed hope that the rest of the hostages would be released.
“We certainly welcome the release of the two Filipino cameramen and we would hope that all the captives will be released but, again, that will take some time,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf is an extremist offshoot of a Moro rebellion that has raged in the predominantly Catholic nation’s south for decades. US-backed military offensives have crippled it in recent years, but it remains a national security threat.
Washington has listed the Abu Sayyaf, which has about 380 armed fighters, as a terrorist organization.
The 1996 peace deal with the government did not require the MNLF guerrillas to disarm. They have settled back in their communities but have clashed with government troops periodically while negotiating for more concessions.
The group’s stature has been overshadowed in recent years by the larger MILF, which is engaged in Malaysian-brokered talks with the government to expand and seek more power and resources for an existing Muslim autonomous region.—With reports from TJ Burgonio and AP
Originally posted: 9:01 pm | Monday, February 4th, 2013