ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas stormed an Abu Sayyaf jungle lair in Sulu early yesterday in a squabble over hostages, triggering a bloodbath that left five MNLF men dead, with four of them decapitated.
Police and Marines went on heightened alert amid fears that the fighting could escalate and spread to neighboring villages in Patikul.
The MNLF band under Ustadz Habier Malik reportedly demanded custody of Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, who has been held captive by the Abu Sayyaf since June last year together with two Filipino television crewmen, Roland Letrero and Ramel Vela.
Police said the Abu Sayyaf stood firm on its demand for ransom in exchange for Atyani’s release. Military officials said the Abu Sayyaf wanted P130 million for the three captives, who had gone to Sulu to interview the group.
On Saturday night the Abu Sayyaf released the two Filipinos, but not to Malik’s group, and held on to Atyani. The Associated Press, citing three security officials who have been closely monitoring the kidnappers, reported that ransom was paid, although no amount was specified.
Police said the fighting erupted in the mountain village of Barangay Buhanginan in Patikul. It was not clear which group initiated the gunbattle.
The officer-in-charge of the Sulu provincial police, Superintendent Glenn Roy Gabor, said they received reports that four of the five MNLF fatalities were beheaded.
Gabor said they were still checking reports that the Abu Sayyaf also incurred casualties.
Military sources said Malik’s group had been negotiating with the Abu Sayyaf since last year for the release of Atyani and his crew, not for ransom but for the hostages to be turned over to MNLF founding chieftain Nur Misuari.
The sources said the release could boost the political stock of Misuari, who is running for governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the May elections.
While many MNLF members rejoined the social mainstream after the group signed a peace treaty with the government in 1996, a faction has remained underground, engaging mostly in banditry in Sulu.
Malik is seen as a loyalist of Misuari, who staged a “mini rebellion” in November 2001 from Zamboanga City to Sulu when he appeared to be losing his grip on power as ARMM governor.
As they retreated to Jolo, Malik’s group attacked an Army camp but was repelled, forcing Misuari to flee to Malaysia.
In 2005, Malik’s group went on a rampage again, this time in Panamao, Sulu, leaving 37 soldiers dead, including Lt. Col. Dennis Villanueva.
In 2007, Malik’s group detained a group led by then defense undersecretary Ramon Santos and Marine Brig. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino.
The group had tried to negotiate an end to the banditry.
Chief Superintendent Noel de los Reyes, head of the ARMM police, ordered his commanders to ensure the safety of civilians.
“Fighting has been ongoing intermittently between the two forces,” Gabor said.
Misuari is running as an independent in the May elections against ARMM officer-in-charge Mujiv Hataman of the Liberal Party and former Sultan Kudarat congressman Pakung Mangudadatu of the United Nationalist Alliance.
Malik’s group had also been negotiating for the release of two European bird watchers who were kidnapped in Tawi-Tawi in February last year.
The Abu Sayyaf is also holding captive a Japanese treasure hunter, a Malaysian and a Filipino resident of Sulu.
Last week Malik said he met with Abu Sayyaf commander Jul-Asman Sawadjaan to seek the release of Atyani and the two Filipino crew members. The Abu Sayyaf refused, Malik said.
Malik had earlier said his group was seeking the freedom of the hostages to help the government clean up the image of Sulu, which has gained notoriety for ransom kidnappings.
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have about 380 armed fighters in Sulu and nearby islands.
On Friday, Washington renewed a longstanding warning to Americans not to travel to Sulu, “due to the high threat of kidnapping… and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there.” – With AP