Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Latest Attack Raises Concerns of Broader Philippines Threat

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Latest Attack Raises Concerns of Broader Philippines Threat

Article excerpt

MANILA, Philippines -- Two small, ultraviolent rebel groups joined forces to fight government troops Thursday in the southern Philippines, a clash that occurred on an island adjacent to the city where several hundred rebels are in a standoff with the Philippines military.

The violence raised fears about a potential widening of the insurgent threat in the area, where the government has been struggling for decades to contain attacks by Muslim-led groups.

Three soldiers were wounded in Thursday's firefight, which occurred at 9:30 a.m. in the village of Lamitan on the restive southern Philippine island of Basilan, according to a statement from the Philippines military. Basilan government officials told a local radio station that five people from the area were missing after the attack.

The attack involved combined forces of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has undertaken kidnappings and beheadings in the area for more than a decade, and the recently formed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a violent offshoot of a larger rebel group.

"According to our sources, the two groups have formed an alliance," Col. Rodrigo Gregorio, a military spokesman in the area, said by telephone Thursday.

He said the Basilan battle, which involved about 150 rebels, did not appear to be a widening of the conflict in nearby Zamboanga City, where a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front has been holding dozens of hostages, virtually paralyzing the important trading area.

"There is no connection to the situation in Zamboanga City," Col. Gregorio said, adding that Abu Sayyaf is active on Basilan island and periodically stages attacks. "We are in hot pursuit of them now."

National government officials have said they are seeking a peaceful resolution to the standoff in Zamboanga City, but on Thursday a presidential spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said the use of force remained an option in light of the attack on Basilan island.

"The forces of the state are ready to exercise the resolve of the government," Mr. Lacierda said in a statement. "While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution to the situation, let it be clear to those defying us that they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people. …

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