ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines â€“ Muslims versus Muslims â€“ this is mutual annihilation and it must stop.
A senior member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) issued this call yesterday as the group massed for a bigger assault on Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Sulu.
The fighting, which erupted Sunday morning, has prompted hundreds of villagers to flee their homes in Patikul town, where Abu Sayyaf bandits are believed to be holding Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani.
The government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has dispatched relief and health workers to Patikul, while police and military units are moving to prevent the violence from spreading to populated areas.
Habib Mujahab Hashim, a senior member of the MNLFâ€™s central committee and chairman of the groupâ€™s Islamic Command Council, said there was a lull in the fighting yesterday as the guerrillas under Ustadz Habier Malik regrouped in preparation for a bigger offensive.
â€œIf this does not stop, it could lead to mutual annihilation,â€ Hashim said as he called on MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari to stop the offensive. â€œThe only way out is to talk brother to brother.â€
Many MNLF and Abu Sayyaf members are related by blood or marriage along with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said yesterday it would not meddle in the hostilities, except to ensure the safety of civilians in the affected areas.
â€œThey have their own agenda,â€ said Col. Orlando de Leon, commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade. â€œPreventing the resumption of hostilities is hardâ€¦ any time, it could erupt. What we want to prevent is a spillover.â€
AFP hospitals, however, are ready to assist wounded fighters on both sides, De Leon said.
â€œWe are ready to treat the wounded,â€ he said. â€œThat is provided by international humanitarian law.â€
Hashim expressed fears that prolonged hostilities could lead to a serious clan war or rido.
â€œItâ€™s sad that Muslims are killing fellow Muslims,â€ Hashim lamented, adding, â€œWe also donâ€™t condone Muslims killing Christians.â€
He said he had talked with senior MNLF and Islamic religious leaders to intervene and stop the hostilities, but was told that they would do so only on instructions of Misuari.
â€œThey said any movement to interfere might be perceived as sabotage,â€ Hashim said.
Misuari reportedly ordered the offensive after the Abu Sayyaf refused to turn over several of its hostages to the MNLF.
On Saturday night the Abu Sayyaf released Filipino television crew members Ramel Vela and Roland Letrero, but not to the MNLF, and refused to hand over Atyani to Malikâ€™s group.
The release of the two Filipino hostages, reportedly in exchange for ransom, prompted the MNLF to attack the Abu Sayyafâ€™s jungle lairs on Sunday.
Sixteen MNLF fighters have been reported killed, with several of them beheaded, while the group estimates that the Abu Sayyaf has lost 14 men.
Misuari is running as an independent for a fresh term as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
In Davao City yesterday, President Aquino emphasized that the government did not give a green light for the MNLF offensive.
â€œThere is no sanction, there is no clearance. They didnâ€™t tell us that they were going to attack the Abu Sayyaf,â€ he said.
What he had ordered, the President said, was to bring about 300 families displaced by the fighting to safer ground. He also ordered the military and police to confine the violence to Patikul.
â€œOn Sunday when I first heard about the clash, our first priority of course (was the safety of) our citizens or civilians who might be caught in the conflict areas,â€ Aquino said.
The President was in Davao to address over 300 participants in the 2013 Philippine Development Forum held at the Marco Polo Hotel.
Briefing reporters after his speech, the President said the government is addressing the root causes of armed conflict in Sulu.
â€œThat is what we are working on in the peace process,â€ the President said. â€œWe are addressing the problem of why they rebel.â€
Many MNLF members rejoined the social mainstream after the group signed a peace treaty with the government in 1996. Misuari later became ARMM governor.
In November 2001, faced with the prospect of losing the ARMM post, Misuari staged an insurrection in Zamboanga City but was forced to retreat to Sulu and eventually flee to Malaysia. Over 100 people, many of them MNLF fighters, were killed. Malik and his men joined Misuari in that uprising and later holed up in Sulu.
Since last year, Malikâ€™s MNLF faction has been negotiating with the Abu Sayyaf to release its hostages. In addition to Atyani, bureau chief of Dubai-based al-Arabiya network, the group is still holding two Europeans, a Malaysian, an Australian and a Filipino.
A Japanese captive is believed to have been assimilated by the Abu Sayyaf.
Sources said Misuari hoped that securing the release of the hostages would boost his chances in the ARMM race in May and improve his standing in the Organization of Islamic Conference.
The Presidentâ€™s Liberal Party is fielding ARMM officer-in-charge Mujiv Hataman against Misuari and former Sultan Kudarat congressman Pakung Mangudadatu of the United Nationalist Alliance for governor in the autonomous region. â€“ With Edith Regalado, John Unson, Aurea Calica