Manila– A “forgotten prisoner” –separatist leader Nur Misuari – may hold the key to the fierce fighting that is raging inJoloIslandin the southern PhilippineprovinceofSulu. The week-long clashes between the Philippine army and militants, which include both the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group and Misuari’s followers, have left more than 90 soldiers and rebels dead and have shown no signs of abating.
There are now fears that the fighting could spill over to centralMindanaoas both government and rebel forces have beefed up their strength in Jolo. Soldiers from the Army's 75th Infantry Battalion in full battle gear and backed up by armoured personnel carriers arrived in Suluon Feb 14.
According to a report posted on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front website, the rival Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which Misuari founded, had sent some 3,000 to 3,500 of its fighters to Jolo in recent days.
Misuari has been isolated in a heavily-secured jail in the outskirts ofManilasince 2001 following a failed uprising by his supporters. He faces charges of rebellion but his case appears to be languishing in a judicial limbo.
According reports in some Philippine newspapers, the Jolo uprising was instigated by Misuari himself to bring his plight back into the limelight.
However, a Muslim leader in contact with Misuari and his relatives told AFP news agency that the MNLF founder was surprised at the fresh hostilities and insisted that he had not sanctioned them.
An Abu Sayyaf leader, Abu Solaiman, told a radio station that his grouphad joined forces with the Misuari followers to avenge the death of a couple and their son who were killed by Philippine troops.
Whatever the trigger for the Jolo uprising may be, some observersbelieve that the government may need to call upon Misuari to help end the bloodshed.
Senate Minority Leader Senator Aquilino Pimentel, who comes from the troubled south, warned that hostilities would continue if the government did not guarantee that Misuari “will be fairly treated and the case against him given the due attention it deserves”.
His view was echoed by other Muslim leaders in the country.
Mr Amerol Ambiong of the Metro Manila Peace and Order Coordinating Council said: “Nur Misuari should be talked to so he could negotiate with his own people in order to stop the conflict.”
However, several Philippine newspapers urged the government to adhere to its declared position of no compromise.
“An armed insurrection must be subdued, or the lack of government action may prove fatal. The other elements of a comprehensive solution will come into play only after the security threat has been contained,” said the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Feb 13.
The Manila Times said on Feb 14: “The authorities should find out what’s holding up the trial of Misauri, that much they owe him. But transferring his detention to Jolo, as his followers have been clamouring, is definitely out of the question. This must be where the government draws the line.”
* The Misuari card in the Jolo uprising (Manila Times, Feb 14)
* Breakaway (Inquirer News Service, Feb 13)
* Misuari in jail but still a thorn in RP peace efforts (Manila Times, Feb 14)
* Troops pour into Jolo; fears raised clashes could spread (Inquirer News Service, Feb 14)