Pursuit Operations in Sulu Trigger AFP-MNLF Clash

Vol. VII, No. 28, August 19-25, 2007

The plot seems to be getting thicker. While pursuing Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bandits and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters allegedly responsible for the beheading of 10 Marines, soldiers clashed, this time, with fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), sources said.

In its so far unsuccessful pursuit of a small band of ASG bandits who kidnapped Italian priest Fr. Giancarlo Bossi and beheaded 10 Marines, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is getting into exchanges of fire with the MILF and the MNLF – groups that have peace talks with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). The escalation of conflict in the war-torn island of Mindanao threatens all peace negotiations and agreements addressing the Moro war, and risks bringing the elusive dream of peace farther from the reach of its peoples.

The latest wave of clashes between the AFP and the MNLF began on Aug. 7, when soldiers belonging to the Philippine Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion – claiming to be pursuing ASG bandits – ended up getting into a firefight with MNLF men. This was followed by AFP-MNLF encounters the next day in the towns of Maimbung and Indanan.

In an interview with Bulatlat, Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie, a convener of the Concerned Citizens of Sulu, said a band of ASG bandits escaping from the military had slipped through Barangay (village) Sampunay, Parang at dawn on Aug. 7. At around the same time, government troops belonging to the Philippine Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion were noticed massing up in the same area.

“The MNLF’s Commander Jihli had even called up his men in the area to alert them regarding the presence of the ASG and the military,” Tulawie said.

Commander Jihli, whose full name is Jihli Habby, was the MNLF’s municipal coordinator in Parang, Tulawie said.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres said the Aug. 7 encounter began when an “undetermined number of gunmen” opened fire on a group of soldiers on board a military truck on the way to buy groceries.

“Initial indication shows combined groups were behind the ambush, because there are indications of participation by the Abu Sayyaf under Radullan Sahiron, lawless elements and rogue elements of the MNLF,” said Torres in a recent radio interview. The Army spokesman added that the types of firearms used in the “attack” were known to be used by the group of Sahiron – who was identified by the military as the ASG leader in Sulu.

MNLF vice chairman Hatimil Hassan has given a different account. He said it was the military that started the fighting on Aug. 7, shelling the MNLF position in Brgy. Sampunay.

“It was not Abu Sayyaf,” Hassan told media. “It was our troops. The problem is with the military. They initiated the attacks.”

Hassan’s statement is bolstered by reports from Tulawie’s group, which went on a fact-finding mission to Parang, Maimbung, and Indanan a few days after the fighting erupted. “The military was on the offensive (on Aug. 7),” Tulawie told Bulatlat.

The encounter left nine soldiers and four MNLF men dead. Among those killed on the MNLF side was Commander Jihli. Also killed was Commander Jihli’s son.

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