Three soldiers and at least four rebels have been killed in fierce clashes between the Philippine Army and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the island province of Basilan.
At least 13 soldiers and an unknown number of rebels were also wounded in the fighting which could threaten a 2014 peace agreement that had brought a degree of calm to the restive southern Philippines’ region.
Brigadier-General Domingo Gobway, commander of the Philippine Army’s Joint Task Force Basilan, said gun battles broke out on Tuesday, Wednesday and again on Thursday morning around Basilan’s Ungkaya Pukan town, located some 1,390 km (863 miles) south of the capital, Manila.
The shooting had died down on Wednesday but re-erupted on Thursday morning when the front’s fighters – the largest rebel group in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines – attacked government soldiers, Gobway said, according to the Manila Bulletin.
“We thought that it was already over but the MILF provoked our troops, they opened fire,” Gobway said, adding that an estimated 100 fighters, including “lawless elements” were involved in the battles.
The confrontations erupted as soldiers were engaged in continuing military operations to hunt down armed criminal elements responsible for recent bomb attacks, said Gobway, who accused the rebels of protecting some of the suspects.
Military leaders and the front’s commanders separately ordered their forces to halt the fighting and begin de-escalation talks on Thursday.
Both sides accused each other of violating the 2014 peace accord, which had eased years of bloody and extensive fighting between the government and rebels in Basilan where an abundance of firearms, private armies, crushing poverty and a long history of violence have created a lethal mix of forces.
The chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace negotiating panel with the government has called for the cessation of hostilities in Barangay Ulitan, Ungklaya Pukan, Basilan.https://t.co/sBygHlaZLt
— Manila Bulletin News (@manilabulletin) November 10, 2022
In a statement released on Thursday, the front’s peace implementation panel chairman expressed regret for the “unfortunate incident”.
Mohagher Iqbal, who led the rebels during years of peace talks with the government, called for “immediate disengagement” between both sides “to prevent the situation from escalating”. Iqbal also called for an investigation of the cause of the violence to ensure that it would not be repeated.
“The MILF is firmly committed to implementing the CAB [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro] and realising long-term peace, justice, and prosperity,” the chairman said in a statement.
Under the 2014 peace pact, the rebels dropped their secessionist aspirations in exchange for a more powerful and better-funded Muslim autonomous region called Bangsamoro.
The five-province Muslim region is now led by former rebel leaders under a transition period that is scheduled to end in 2025.
Western governments have welcomed the progress made during years of peace talks between Manila and the front, which has transformed battlefields into a potential growth centre in the once-restive south of the country.
Naguib Sinarimbo, the interior minister of the Bangsamoro autonomous region, told the Associated Press that the renewed fighting was of great concern.
“This is very alarming because the implications are worrisome to us,” he said, adding that the clashes could undermine the decommissioning of rebel weapons.
“Our worry is if there are sparks like this, concerns may arise whether the decommissioning process would continue.”
Nearly half of an estimated 40,000 rebels have agreed to lay down their firearms and return to normal life in exchange for livelihood packages under the peace pact. Thousands have kept their firearms while waiting to be subjected to a years-long “decommissioning process”, a subtle term for surrendering their weapons.
That process has been delayed amid complaints that former rebels have failed to receive promised cash and other incentives from the government in exchange for their weapons.
The Philippine office of the presidential adviser on peace and reconciliation said in a Twitter message on Thursday that the fighting was “unfortunate” in light of the progress made in maintaining peace in the region.
“We ask the cooperation of our partners from the MILF to stay the course and work together with the ceasefire mechanisms and government forces to uphold the ceasefire agreement, which has been a product of arduous efforts from both parties in the interest of the welfare of our people,” the peace office said in a statement.