Thousands flee standoff between govt forces and ex-guerrillas in southern Philippines

Roel Pareño
Zamboanga, Philippines
Thousands flee standoff between govt forces and ex-guerrillas in southern Philippines Soldiers gesture aboard a military truck as they are deployed to remote villages in Jolo, Sulu, southern Philippines, Oct. 17, 2014.

Thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the southern Philippines’ Sulu islands amid a standoff following a deadly weekend gunbattle between police and armed former guerrillas, officials said Monday.

As of late Monday, the standoff was still ongoing and at least one policeman and three suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front, a former separatist rebel group, were reported killed in related violence over the weekend. 

The military said the violence began Saturday when followers of Pando Mudjasan, a former town vice mayor and leader of the MNLF, fired upon police officers as they prepared to serve him an arrest warrant for murder and illegal firearms and ammunition. 

Police said Mudjasan’s armed followers housed inside a fortified compound opened fire on the police as they approached the village of Bualo Lipid in Maimbung town.

One member of the police Special Action Force (SAF) unit and three followers of Mudjasan were killed in the fighting. Ten policemen and a soldier were also reported to have been wounded, while two civilians were hit by stray bullets, the police and military said.

The violence has displaced about 5,000-6,000 civilians, Maj. Andrew Linao, spokesman for the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), said Monday. The civilians were sheltering in the Maimbung town gymnasium and being assisted by local officials.

“They fled because they are very afraid, and we are calling on everyone to calm down,” Linao told reporters. “But that is what usually happens when you have a firefight near a populated community.”

Civilians near the conflict area were being advised not to return to their homes amid ongoing tensions in the area.

Brig. Gen. Eugenio Boquio, commander of the Army’s 1101st Brigade, said Mudjasan and his brother were injured but were able to escape, according to intelligence reports. But Mudjasan and his followers have not escaped from Sulu, an island province in the far southern Philippines, although it was unclear how many of their followers were still inside the compound, Linao said.

Linao said the area where the fighting was concentrated had been cordoned off, with troops and soldiers moving closer in.

“The operation of the SAF and police unit is ongoing to serve the warrant, capture and neutralize Pando [Mudjasan],” Linao said.

“Our effort is continuing now and our Army has set up checkpoints and blockades to prevent them from escaping.”

Mudjasan’s group was composed of 20 to 30 individuals prior to the clash on Saturday. But the number of his fighters grew to around 50 individuals during the fighting, officials said.

Political warlords controlling their own private armies is a pervasive problem in the Philippines, especially in the southern Mindanao region where many of these officials were once members of insurgent groups who command their own forces.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was once the country’s largest separatist force until it signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, although that agreement failed.

A splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), would later sign a deal that would supersede the old peace pact and create an expanded Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao now controlled by MILF.

Some ex-MNLF fighters became elected local officials in Jolo, with their former rebel commands forming their own private armed security, officials said.

Military coordination and talks with the Sulu-based MNLF leadership were continuing to ensure that the law enforcement operation was aimed only at Mudjasan due to his criminal charges, officials said. 

Mudjasan’s illegal activities were not sanctioned by the MNLF leadership, officials said.  The fugitive’s group was composed of “sympathizers and (Mudjasan’s) relatives from the MNLF,” Brig. Gen. Boquio said.

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


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