Philippine military, MILF agree to ceasefire after deadly clashes on southern island

BenarNews staff
Zamboanga, Philippines
Philippine military, MILF agree to ceasefire after deadly clashes on southern island Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front clean their rifles inside a security checkpoint at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, June 22, 2019.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

Updated at 12:52 p.m. ET on 2022-11-11

The Philippine military and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a former rebel group that signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014, agreed to a truce ending two days of deadly fighting on southern Basilan island, officials said Thursday.

The rare fighting marked the fiercest and bloodiest outbreak of violence between government and MILF forces in almost eight years. The military said three of its soldiers were killed and 13 others were wounded in the fierce clashes, which began on Tuesday afternoon and lasted until Thursday morning in and around the village of Utilan. 

Military officials could only account for three deaths and an undetermined number of wounded among More Islamic Liberation Front members. A source related to a MILF combatant had told BenarNews on Wednesday that as many as 10 fighters on their side were killed. The source requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

Representatives of both sides who sit on a bilateral body, the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, had met “to halt the tension triggered by miscommunication,” the chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) said on Thursday.

“We are currently employing ceasefire mechanisms to pacify the situation,” Brig. Gen. Arturo Rojas said, adding that troops deployed to the area were instructed to “protect the integrity of the peace process.”

“I ordered the troops to strengthen their defensive position to avoid [more] casualties and collateral damage,” he said.

The fighting broke out on Tuesday in Utilan, where MILF fighters were believed to be “coddling” suspected militants who were involved in twin bombings that wounded two people in the capital of Basilan in May.

The violence started when MILF members allegedly shot at a security detail escorting Lt. Col. John Ferdinand Lazo, the commander of the 64th Infantry Battalion, who had arrived on site to open a dialogue with the MILF people.

After a lull on Wednesday night the fighting resumed on Thursday morning, but the guns have since fallen silent after both sides ordered the ceasefire, officials said.

“We thought there’s already peace, but the MILF again provoked (us), they opened fire at our troops,” Brig. Gen. Domingo Gobway, commander of the military’s Joint Task Force Basilan, told reporters Thursday. 

The clashes forced nearly 1,500 families from six villages to flee their homes but no civilian deaths were reported, the military said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the three Philippine Army soldiers were killed when they were ambushed by MILF forces during a mission to resupply soldiers on the frontline, said Lt. Col. Abdurasad Sirajan, spokesman for WestMinCom. 

The fighting was the first major clash between government forces and MILF members since January 2015, when 44 police commandoes were killed by MILF forces as they entered a rebel stronghold to arrest a Malaysian militant bomber named Zulkifl bin Hir (alias Marwan).

Marwan was killed in the raid, but a breakdown in coordination and communication led to the clash. The MILF later told a congressional inquiry in Manila that their forces thought they were being attacked.

Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., the Philippine president’s adviser on peace, reacted with alarm to the news about the latest fighting by saying it could not be allowed “to negate the major gains we have achieved over the years,” news reports quoted him as saying in referring to a fragile peace in the southern Bangsamoro region. 

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front now controls an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines. In 2014, the guerrilla group signed a peace accord with the government that ended decades of fighting.

On paper the MILF has ceased to be a rebel group, with some of its members having applied to join the government’s military and police forces. While the MILF has agreed to order its members to turn in and decommission their firearms, officials and analysts have warned that many guns remain in the hands of former fighters in the field.

Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro city, Philippines. 

This story has been updated to provide some more information about the source who talked about the number of fighters killed on the side of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.


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