The southern Philippines could be on the brink of a new wave of violence. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government are preparing in case the four-year-old ceasefire breaks down.

 

At least 120,000 people have been killed while two million more have been internally displaced since the separatist war started in the mid-1970s.

 

Veronica Pedrosa gets exclusive access to join the marines on Basilan island - the frontline of the forgotten conflict in Mindanao.

 

The flight path of the military helicopters passes over swamps and jungles on the island which has seen peace over the past four years, but which has known war far longer.

 

The monsoon season is seeing the most serious challenge yet to the ceasefire between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government.

 

This decades-long conflict is a result of a complex combination of centuries-old ethnic, clan and religious rivalries.

 

In Video


Watch Veronica Pedrosa's report

The Philippine defence chief and his generals, local officials and government negotiators are working on plans to match the dangerous mood on Basilan.

 

The headquarters of the First Marine Brigade is based on the island, which has about 5,000 soldiers.

 

Everyone is worried that a major offensive is in the making, and the northern side of Basilan is preparing for the worst.

 

The armed forces have vowed to find the culprits no matter how long it will take, and without putting the peace process at risk.

 

As one general described it, this will be a silent war, but it will be a war of attrition.

 

There are military checkpoints every few kilometres and everyone is searched for weapons and questioned.

 

At the heart of the dispute are the marines, who on July 10 were caught in a gunfight that lasted eight hours.

 

The MILF admitted engaging the marines, but said they had "trespassed" into their territory without "prior arrangements".

 

The group denied mutilating any of the bodies of those killed.

 

The military says it lost 14 men, 10 of them beheaded, and now wants to see those responsible brought to justice.

 

There is fear the MILF might retaliate by
striking soft targets

Lieutenant Carlos Sureta, a marine officer who survived the attack, said about 300 MILF gunmen surrounded his convoy of about 70 soldiers.

 

"They were walking and firing towards us. They were just casually walking … [and] overran our position," he said.

 

For the marines, it has become a matter of honour, which explains the codename for the upcoming offensive - Ultimate Justice.

 

The commanding officer of a team deployed to implement the plan says war will not happen if he can help it.

 

General Juancho Sabban, the marine commander of Joint Task Force Thunder, said they will "try to control the firepower".

 

"It's not the 'shock and awe' operation. We will be doing this deliberately and we'll have selective targets," he said.

 

One town mayor says he has been warned that the MILF could retaliate to a military attack by striking soft targets in the towns.

 

Roderick Furigay, the mayor of Lamitan city, said: "We have activated all our internal defence team rescue team already in place if anything goes wrong we are ready to face."

 

The situation on Basilan has become so volatile that any confrontation could set off all-out war and completely breakdown the already-stalled peace talks.

 

 

 

Marga Ortigas visits an MILF training camp on the mainland in Mindanao, as unstable peace negotiations threaten to break down completely.

 

The MILF has been fighting for a Muslim homeland for 30 years. It broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front which signed a peace accord with the Philippine government in 1978.

 

The government believes the MILF camps are training grounds for the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, groups accused of kidnappings, bombings and other attacks on civilians.

 

The MILF denies this.

 

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Watch Marga Ortigas' report

Although the group claims it has thousands of fighters and strong grassroots support numbering "millions", the actual figure is thought to be much smaller.

 

Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF vice-chairman, said: "Our religion is Islam … and you know Islam is a way of life … and so we cannot detach our life from Islam."

 

The MILF heartland also has many Christians living among the Muslim population, such as in Cotabato City, where the group has a command centre.

 

For many in Mindanao, both Christians and Muslims, any government will do so long they can live in peace and put food on the table.

 

About a hundred kilometers away deep in the jungles of Mindanao, the MILF fighters make their way back to camp, one of many scattered in the southern Philippines.

 

Though not engaged in active combat, they do their drills and stay alert.

 

About 150 fighters live here with their families who are all prepared to die for their cause.

 

Like Violy, who lost her husband to the war. Her children are now involved too.

 

Teenagers say they would die for their cause

She said she will fight to the very end until Mindanao is peaceful and prosperous in the name of the Muslim people.

 

Despite a ceasefire with government forces, many infractions have occurred in recent months and tensions are again running high.

 

The MILF leadership has denied factionalism although "lost" commands or renegade troops have been blamed for recent attacks on civilians.

 

But a new breed of fighters are being trained here, teenagers like Pagya Tapa, who is not quite sure what peace looks like but is willing to die to get it.

 

Jaafar said: "We will exhaust all peaceful means … let us see what will happen in this negotiation ... anyway revolutionaries have many options."

 

But along with the call for peace also comes a warning.

 

The MILF leader says peace better come soon or with a new generation of fighters waiting in the wings, it may not come at all.

Source: Al Jazeera