JOLO, Sulu - The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is consolidating its forces in Sulu in preparation for another attack on the main base of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the jungles of Patikul following clashes that killed at least 54 combatants from both camps.
Habib Mudjahib, chair of the Islamic Command Council of the MNLF, said the fighting stopped Monday night but that the MNLF is mustering its forces once again in preparation for a fresh attack anytime at Kuta Masarin, where ASG leader Radulan Sahiron is holding camp with an estimated 500 fighters.
Also yesterday, MNLF sources said their group's offensive against the ASG has the blessing of MNLF founding Chairman Prof. Nur Misuari who is currently in Cairo, Egypt attending a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Relatedly, a top official of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday called for a ceasefire in the fighting between the two armed Moro groups in Sulu.
Von Al-Haq, spokesman for military affairs of the MILF, made the call yesterday.
He said the MILF leadership has instructed their Base Command headed by Commander Baharon Kamlon in Sulu to "stay put," and not to try to get in between the two groups which started fighting on Sunday. Normally, a base command of the MILF has about 3,000 armed combatants.
"We have instructed our men in Sulu to stay put, and just be vigilant, and not to be caught in a crossfire," said Al-Haq.
He said if the MNLF seeks the MILF's help in going after the ASG bandits, it should be made through the MILF leadership. "We will take if from there," he said.
In Davao City, President Benigno S. Aquino III said yesterday the government is moving to prevent a spillover of the fighting between the MNLF and the ASG while assisting families caught in the middle of the conflict.
Meantime, Mudjahib said "the MNLF in Sulu is now gathering more forces to mount a new attack on the lair of ASG leader Radulan Sahiron who is holding camp in a forested area of Kuta Masarin in Patikul, Sulu."
He admitted that MNLF forces failed to cross the first line of defense of the ASG led by ASG sub-leader Hadji Hatip Hajan, an Islamic preacher.
He confirmed that many civilians have been displaced as a result of the fighting between the two groups but that both the local and provincial governments are taking care of the evacuees.
The MNLF council leader also said that the ASG has assembled into smaller groups to avoid large casualties during clashes with MNLF forces.
He expressed fear that the conflict could escalate and spread to the adjacent towns in the province since the ASG is maintaining small groups of combatants in all the towns in the province and in other areas of Mindanao.
He also rejected speculations that the MNLF is working with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
He appealed to the police and military authorities in the province to heighten their alert level to avoid the escalation of the conflict into "rido" or clan war.
The possibility of "rido," he said, is high since families of the two groups are in the province and most of them knew each other.
Mudjahib also maintained that they suffered 23 fatalities including Commander Dizal and that seven of their fighters were beheaded.
He said the council also received information that the ASG suffered 31 casualties.
The military, however, said only 10 MNLF fighters were killed with three of them beheaded by the ASG, while the ASG suffered only 14 deaths.
Meanwhile, Dr. Alipikre Basher, a close Misuari adviser, told the Manila Bulletin that before the MNLF supremo left for abroad either on Jan. 19 or 20, he went to Jolo, Sulu, on Jan. 14 and convened his forces.
Basher, secretary general of the Bangsamoro National People's Parliament (BNPP), said part of the meeting's agenda was the campaign against criminality, particularly against the ASG.
"The MNLF is already fed up with the activities of the Abu Sayyaf. It is about time they are stopped," he said.
He said leaders of the two groups at first tried to negotiate, but their differences eventually erupted into a firefight, killing several combatants from both sides.
In Davao City, President Aquino said there was no government sanction or clearance given to the MNLF to launch an attack on the ASG.
"Walang sanction, walang clearance. They didn't tell us that they're gonna attack the Abu Sayyaf," the President said in a press conference.
"Sa ngayon, sorry ha, nakakalimutan ko, kino-contain natin na hindi kumalat 'yung violence beyond the areas of Patikul (For now, sorry I forget, we are trying to contain it and prevent violence from spreading beyond the areas of Patikul)," the President said.
As soon as he learned about the fighting that erupted between the MNLF and the ASG, the President said his first priority was to ensure the safety of the civilians affected by the crossfire.
"We directed both the security services-meaning, the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the PNP (Philippine National Police) -and also Secretary (Corazon) Soliman of the DSWD to ensure that the civilians who might be caught up in the areas are evacuated to safe areas and are taken care of," the President said.
At present, Aquino said around 300 affected families are being assisted by the local government of Sulu and concerned national government agencies.
The hostilities started last weekend following the release of two Filipino cameramen by the ASG in Sulu after they were abducted in June last year. Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, on the other hand, is still reportedly in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf militants.
The MNLF, which signed a final peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1992, has reportedly been assisting in the release of the Abu Sayyaf hostages. (With reports from Edd K. Usman, Genalyn D. Kabiling and Ali G. Macabalang)