54 Killed in Sulu Fighting

Article excerpt

JOLO, Sulu - Fighting broke out on Sunday between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the jungles of Patikul town in Sulu, leaving at least 54 fighters from both sides dead and several others wounded.

The fighting was still raging yesterday, authorities said.

Habib Mudjahib, chair of the Islamic Command Council of the MNLF, said as of noontime yesterday, the MNLF had suffered 23 killed, including MNLF commander Rizal and seven of his fighters who were beheaded by the ASG extremists.

He said about 31 ASG members were also killed and several others wounded as a result of the encounter between the two groups that started on Sunday morning in the mountain village of Barangay Buhanginan in Patikul.

Before the fighting erupted, an MNLF senior field leader said former MNLF commander Ustadz Habier Malik had expressed disgust with the un-Islamic acts of the ASG in the province and vowed to eliminate them quickly to make Sulu a peaceful province once again.

Reports said Ustadz Malik gathered some 3,000 fully armed men on Sunday and then launched an attack on the lair of the ASG in Kuta Masarin, Patikul.

Sources said Malik's group decided to attacked the ASG lair after they failed to gain custody of Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, who has been held captive by the ASG since June last year in the mountainous areas of Patikul.

On Saturday night Filipino television crewmen Roland Letrero and Ramelito Vela were released by the ASG.

Prior to the release of the two Filipino hostages, the ASG had been demanding P130 million for the safe release of their three captives.

Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra, director of the Sulu Police Provincial Office, said the fighting appeared to have been triggered by a clan war, locally called rido, between members of the two groups.

"This could be an offshoot of rido between the two groups," said Freyra.

He said both the police and the military would not take the risk of meddling in the conflict, noting that the area where the clashes occurred may be part of an area under MNLF influence. Government forces could not also just enter in the area he said.

A military official earlier said many of the MNLF and ASG forces in the area are actually relatives.

It was recalled that in several instances, the military had accused some erring MNLF members of either reinforcing the ASG bandits in a clash with the military or coddling bandits in distress.

Initial reports revealed that the MNLF fighters were led by a certain Commander Malik while the ASG fighters were under Radullan Sahiron.

It was not clear, however, if Commander Malik is Habier Malik, the highest-ranking commander of MNLF in Sulu, who earlier led a large band of his fighters to the ASG lair in Patikul to demand for the unconditional release of all the remaining hostages, including Atyani. …