Jolo – Fierce gun battles between the Philippine military and followers of jailed separatist leader Nur Misuari have left more than 100 people dead or wounded in this southern Philippine island. Although Jolo, in Sulu province, is a stronghold for Islamic militants, the island has not seen such intense fighting in years.
The rebels have called for a ceasefire but the Southern Command chief, Lt-Gen Alberto Braganza, said on Feb 10 that “it is surrender or nothing”.
According to a military spokesman, Lt-Col Buenaventura Pascual, the fighting flared after a Muslim child was killed in the crossfire between the military and Abu Sayyaf, a small rebel group specialising in kidnapping, on the weekend.
More than 20 soldiers have been killed and 46 wounded while the rebels reportedly suffered over 60 dead or wounded in the fighting. Most of the fighting centred in the coastal town ofPanamao, where guerrillas engaged troops in a series of running skirmishes.
Lt-Col Pascual said the Abu Sayyaf used the weekend shooting to stir up unrest to urge Misuari followers to join them in attacks on military outposts. As many as 800 Muslim militants were believed to be involved.
Misuari’s supporters are using the clashes to pressure the government into transferring their leader, who is being held at a police camp in Laguna,Manila, to a detention centre in Jolo.
Misuari used to be the head of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace treaty withManilain 1996. But the violence continued and Misuari was jailed on charges of rebellion in 2001.
MNLF Secretary-General Istad Mushiri said on Feb 10 that Misuari had appealed to his followers for “self-restraint, sobriety, and calmness” in the wake of the fierce fighting, which has also left 3,000 people homeless.
He added that the rebels were “open for dialogue” to find a way to end the clashes.MrMushiri also denied that they were in cahoots with the Abu Sayyaf group.
“We don't deal with those kind of people,” he said.
Asked to comment on the military's call for the rebels to surrender, Mr Mushiri said: “They will not surrender. They are fighting for a just cause.”
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo described the situation in Jolo as one in which “the forces of the law” and “forces of lawlessness” had been brought together.
“We will win the peace for the people, but we will not give the terrorists a moment of peace,” she said on Feb 10.
* Arroyo vows fight ‘to the limit’ as military pounds Jolo (Inquirer News Service, Feb 10)
* Military rejects truce in Jolo battle (The Manila Times, Feb 10)