Gov’t forces battle Abu Sayyaf in Basilan
ZAMBOANGA CITY—Army soldiers thwarted a plan by suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits to attack the police headquarters in Lamitan City in Basilan province, even as the standoff involving followers of Nur Misuari in this city dragged on to a fourth day on Thursday.
Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) said Scout Rangers clashed with about 100 armed men on their way to Camp Uno in Barangay (village) Colonia in Lamitan City around 8:30 a.m. The fighting lasted 30 minutes, he said.
Three bandits and a civilian, identified as Rogelio Acaso, were killed, said Army Col. Paulo Perez, commander of the 18th Infantry Battalion based in Basilan. Acaso was caught in the crossfire.
The island province of Basilan is a boat ride away from Zamboanga City, where Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters loyal to Nur Misuari have been holding dozens of residents hostage since Monday, when government troops repulsed their attempt to raise an MNLF flag in Plaza Pershing.
The four-day-old crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most commercial flights and ferry services suspended.
Not MNLF men
Hataman said Abu Sayyaf bandits, not MNLF forces, figured in the Lamitan clash. They already retreated and were being pursued by government troops, he told the Inquirer by phone.
He said it was impossible that MNLF men were involved because “they have only 100 men there and all of them are in Zamboanga City.”
Perez said one Army soldier and two civilian volunteers suffered minor injuries. “Lawless elements” were involved in the fighting, he said, describing them as “80 percent members of the Abu Sayyaf and 20 percent MNLF.”
MNLF members in Sarangani province joined their comrades in other parts of Mindanao in giving assurances that they were not mobilizing to support those in Zamboanga City.
“We are in constant contact with … Misuari and there was no instruction from him for us to take an offensive position,” said Winnie Hadjirul, political affairs chief of the MNLF’s Selatan Kutawato Revolutionary Command, during a meeting with police, military and civilian officials.
Hadjirul said Misuari’s instruction was very clear for MNLF men outside of Zamboanga to stay put. “But if our position is being attacked, we have no other recourse but to fight back,” he said, again quoting Misuari as saying.
Vice Mayor Uttoh Salem Cutan of Maasim town in Sarangani, who belongs to the MNLF faction led by Muslimen Sema, denounced the Zamboanga violence and criticized Misuari’s supporters for using civilians as human shields.
“They should not have done that. We condemn such act of violence against civilians,” Cutan said.
Cutan, who remains an influential MNLF leader, said the Sema wing would continue to respect the 1996 peace agreement the government had signed with the then unified MNLF.—With reports from Allan Nawal and Aquiles Zonio, Inquirer Mindanao; and AP
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