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.
So far, Freyra said their focus is on the displaced families, reportedly numbering about 30, who were forced to abandon their homes for fear of being caught in the crossfire.
Freyra, however, said the clashes had already stopped as of yesterday.
Meanwhile, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said the provincial government has adopted appropriate measures to ensure the "safety and welfare" of the civilians living near the encounter sites.
Tan said the provincial government is ready to assist civilians fleeing their homes as a result of the fighting between the two groups.
He said he has ordered the Provincial Social Welfare and Development (PSWD) to provide all the needed assistance to the families affected by the conflict.
He said evacuation centers have been readied in case more families flee their homes to escape from being hit in a cross-fire.
The police and military said they are now securing the adjacent town of Patikul to prevent a spillover of the conflict. Police and Marines have been placed on a heightened state of alert.
Meanwhile, Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos, Jr., the AFP spokesman, said troops from the 2nd Marine Brigade had been deployed to the area to prevent a spillover of the armed clash.
"The situation is now under control and AFP troopers are now working closely in assisting the municipal government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in addressing internally displaced persons (IDP) from MNLF families near Barangay Kabuntakas, Patikul, Sulu," said Burgos.
Col. Orlando De Leon, the 2nd Marine Brigade commander, said the fighting started shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday. He added that around 250 ASG bandits and 300 MNLF fighters figured in the fierce firefight that lasted until around noon time.
Burgos said one of those killed in the MNLF side was identified as Wahab Omar.
From the ASG, one of those killed was identified as Ulod Assam.
"The AFP was successful in containing the violent incident between the MNLF and ASG forces in a small area in Barangay Kabuntakas, Patikul, Sulu. Our troops and the PNP's timely response with the assistance of the PNP helped in avoiding possible spill over of violence to outlying areas," said Burgos.
According to the AFP spokesman, minimal displacement was recorded with 60 families affected by the violent incident. (With reports from Aaron B. Recuenco, Elena L. Aben)