By Carlos H. Conde
Published: December 8, 2008
International Herald Tribune
MANILA: As many as five marines and five Muslim separatist rebels were killed during intense fighting in the southern Philippines, military officials said Monday. They said an undetermined number of government troops and rebels were also wounded.
The fighting began Sunday and continued Monday morning in the two Muslim-dominated provinces of Sulu and Basian, islands that the government had earlier declared to be free from terrorists and Islamic extremists after a U.S.-supported counterterrorism campaign that began in 2002.
Officials said Monday that the number of those killed could sharply increase, particularly on the side of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group.
“We are now on a defensive stance,” said an army spokeswoman, Lieutenant Steffani Cacho. She said the government was mainly going after members of the Abu Sayyaf and “rogue elements” of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the separatist group. She said a recent spate of kidnappings in the region prompted the military operation.
Cacho said that the marines were killed in a firefight in the town of Al-Barka in Basilan Province, a former stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf. In July last year, 14 marines were also killed in the same town after a firefight, 10 of whom were beheaded.
Cacho said the rebels had sought cover in some of the villages. It was not clear whether those wounded, estimated to be more than 50, were mainly rebels or included villagers.
But Mohagher Iqbal, the front’s chief negotiator, said the offensives aimed at the separatists, not the Abu Sayyaf.
“The military is making it more difficult for the peace process to continue,” he said. He criticized what he called a “devious campaign” to link the front with the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group notorious for kidnapping and beheading its victims.
Peace talks collapsed two months ago after the government backed out of an agreement to provide the Muslim rebels with their own territory. The Philippine Supreme Court later ruled that the agreement was unconstitutional.
Since then, fighting has been occurring between the front and the military, displacing more than 300,000 Filipinos from their homes. This prompted third-party observers to appeal to both sides to resume negotiations.
“An immediate cessation of the hostilities is of the utmost urgency, not only to re-launch the peace process, but to allow relief efforts and rehabilitation” of the refugees, the Organization of the Islamic Conference said last week.
The military had earlier said that it would not stop with the offensive.
“Our objective is clear: to get them, specifically their leaders,” Lieutenant Colonel Ernesteo Torres, an army spokesman, said last month, referring to the Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic front.
Despite efforts to flush the Abu Sayyaf from the southern Philippines, it continues to remain the country’s biggest terrorism threat. Last month, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had to cancel a trip to the south after the terrorists shot at a convoy of vehicles with American soldiers on it.
U.S. troops have been stationed in the region since 2002, helping in humanitarian programs and in counterterrorism training for Philippine soldiers.