Ceasefire with ex-Muslim rebels holding in southern Philippines, govt says

BenarNews staff
Zamboanga, Philippines
Ceasefire with ex-Muslim rebels holding in southern Philippines, govt says Carlito G. Galvez Jr. (left), the Philippine presidential adviser on the peace process, talks to reporters in Zamboanga city as Brig. Gen. Arturo Rojas listens, Nov. 16, 2022.
Western Mindanao Command handout

A truce halting intense clashes between Philippine troops and members of a former Muslim separatist guerrilla group is holding in the south, the government’s chief peace adviser said Wednesday as he blamed “third party elements” for last week’s deadly fighting.

The two days of clashes on Basilan island ignited on Nov. 8 when Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces fired at Philippine troops who were sent to arrest “lawless elements” blamed for local bombings, authorities said. The MILF members involved in the fighting apparently were protecting other people from arrest.

The fighting that killed at least three Philippine soldiers and at least seven members of MILF, a former armed separatist group, disrupted a fragile peace in the south where MILF now controls an autonomous Muslim region, and it tested a bilateral peace agreement signed in 2014. 

“There are what we call third-party elements who wanted to disrupt the peace,” said Carlito G. Galvez Jr., a former military chief who now serves as the presidential adviser on the peace process in the southern Philippines, without saying who these people were.

They could be remnants of the Abu Sayyaf Group as well as other criminal groups who “don’t want to see the government and the MILF come together and succeed,” he said. 

Thirteen Philippine soldiers were also injured others in gun battles between both sides not seen since January 2015, when 44 police commandos were killed in a firefight with MILF forces in central Mindanao in a case that nearly brought about the collapse of the peace pact.

Brig. Gen. Domingo Gobway, commander of the Joint Task Force Basilan, said the military had confirmed that seven militants were killed last week, although the number could be higher. A MILF source, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, had told BenarNews that as many as 10 died in the latest clashes.

While initial information blamed MILF members for provoking the fighting, the military was not keen on pressing charges against those militants, he said.

Abu Sayyaf Group

The Abu Sayyaf Group is the smallest and most violent militant group in the south. It is blamed for the country’s worst militant attacks, including beheadings, kidnapping and bombings.

While a faction has declared allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group, the military has downgraded Abu Sayyaf to about 130 active fighters while more than 170 have surrendered since January.

Last week’s clash also disrupted a ceasefire accord contained in the 2014 peace deal. Galvez described the incident as “very unfortunate,” but the government and the MILF were determined to resolve concerns, he said.

“We have done the investigation and we were aware how the incident started. What is good is that we have de-escalated it immediately and the most important part is [that] we have the ways to move forward,” Galvez said.

He said a ceasefire had been put in place by the government and the MILF agreed to continue the dialogue. Plans call for setting up a joint peace and security team of military and MILF forces in Basilan.

Galvez said the team was expected to secure the area and prevent lawless elements and the Abu Sayyaf group from seeking refuge by using the MILF community as its shield against military and other law enforcement agencies.

“Continuous coordination will be done not only on the top level but also on the tactical level to avoid any misencounter,” Galvez said.

MILF and the government signed the comprehensive agreement in 2014 after 17 years of conflict and negotiations in Mindanao. The agreement allowed for the creation of a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines, while militants agreed to turn in their weapons.

Representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front did not respond immediately to BenarNews requests for comment.


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