MNLF-Abu battle rages: 30 killed

Roel Pareño - The Philippine Star

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – With rifles and a .50-caliber machine gun, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas punched their way into the jungle stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu yesterday, leaving about 30 combatants dead on both sides.

Fighting escalated as the MNLF guerrillas approached the lair of one-armed Abu Sayyaf commander Radulan Sahiron, reportedly near an area where Jordanian journalist Baker Abdullah Atyani is being held captive by the extremist group.

The MNLF faction under Ustadz Habier Malik has been trying to secure the release of Atyani, reportedly so he can be turned over to MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari. But the Abu Sayyaf, according to sources, is insisting on ransom and has held on to the Jordanian following the release Saturday night of Atyani’s two Filipino television crew members.

 Authorities confirmed that the fighting resumed as the sun rose yesterday. Police and military units have been deployed to prevent a spillover of the firefight to populated communities.

 Habib Mujahab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council (ICC) and one of the senior leaders of the group’s central committee, said the MNLF had lost 16 men, with at least seven of the fatalities beheaded.

 He said among those killed was an MNLF commander identified only as Rizal.

 At least 14 Abu Sayyaf members were reportedly killed in the clash, Hashim said, but added that the figure could not be verified.

 The fighting resumed at around 7 a.m. when the MNLF forces attacked the camp of preacher Hajjan Sawajaan, near Sahiron’s lair.

 Hashim said there were reports that Sawajaan and his men were holding Atyani captive. Since last year, the MNLF has been trying to persuade the Abu Sayyaf to release other hostages including Europeans, a Malaysian and a Filipino.

 Sulu police director Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said they were in contact with Malik, who said nine of his men were killed in the fighting.

Freyra would not confirm reports that Atyani had been recovered by the MNLF forces.

Lt. General Rey Ardo, chief of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), ordered the Marines to ensure the safety of the hostages and villagers, and prevent the fighting from spreading.

Senior Superintent Noel de los Reyes, police chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said the skirmish is confined to the hinterlands, far from populated areas.

ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman said the provincial peace and order council of Sulu chaired by Gov. Hadji Sakur Tan is assisting villagers displaced by the hostilities.

Atyani and his TV crew, cameraman Ramel Vela and audio technician Roland Letrero, were kidnapped on June 13 last year after they interviewed the Abu Sayyaf as part of a documentary on the conflict areas in Mindanao for Al-Arabiya news channel in Dubai.

Vela and Letrero were freed Saturday night, reportedly after the payment of ransom. The amount paid is not known, although previous reports said the Abu Sayyaf had demanded P130 million for Atyani and the two Filipinos. Vela and Letrero arrived in Manila yesterday.

Malik’s group had wanted to take custody of the hostages. When the two were not turned over to the MNLF, the firefight erupted.

Malik is a known loyalist of Misuari, who is trying to make a comeback as ARMM governor in the May elections.

Running as an independent, Misuari is pitted against ARMM officer-in-charge Hataman of the ruling Liberal Party and former Sultan Kudarat congressman Pakung Mangudadatu of the United Nationalist Alliance. – with John Unson, AP












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