Hundreds of Muslim guerillas will continue efforts to free foreign hostages held by al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the southern Philippines despite a clash last week that killed scores of combatants from both sides, a Muslim rebel leader said.
Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari said late on Tuesday that he ordered his men to reassess their plans following the February 3 clash but to resume efforts to secure the freedom of several hostages, including a Jordanian and two European men, without endangering the captives or nearby communities in Sulu province’s mountainous Patikul town.
The clash killed eight rebels from his group, including a commander, and several gunmen from the Abu Sayyaf, many members of which have fled with their hostages from their traditional encampments in Patikul’s jungles. After the fighting, Misuari said he ordered his forces to rest then reassess their next move “so its repercussions would not be so excessive to society and civilians.”
“I don’t want to cure one mistake with another mistake,” he said.
The condition of the Abu Sayyaf’s kidnap victims in Sulu, who police say include a Jordanian TV journalist, two bird watchers from Switzerland and the Netherlands, a Malaysian and a Japanese treasure hunter, remains unknown following the fighting.
Misuari, who just returned from a foreign trip, said he would fly to Sulu soon to deliver combat uniforms and other supplies to his forces.
Misuari’s insurgent group, which signed a landmark autonomy deal with the government in 1996, will not stop until it has recovered all the hostages and weakened the Abu Sayyaf militants to a point where they could no longer continue their yearslong kidnapping spree and other acts of banditry, he said.
Asked why his group was only acting now, Misuari said he waited to see the result of years of US-backed offensives by Philippine forces but that the effort failed to end the Abu Sayyaf’s brutal attacks, which have damaged the image and potential of Sulu, a resource-rich but poverty-wracked frontier region 950 kilometres south of Manila.
“We cannot forever live in indefinite uncertainty,” Misuari said, denying speculation that his insurgent group’s actions were a publicity stunt to prop up his candidacy for governorship of a Muslim autonomous region in May 13 elections.
“Absolutely it has nothing to do with that,” he said. “Even if I stay as governor for a million years, that could not pay for a drop of blood of my brothers.”
Misuari’s forces were not required to disarm under the 1996 peace deal, allowing the rebels to settle back in their Sulu communities with their weapons. His group’s decision to drop a separatist goal in exchange for limited autonomy in the country’s south, along with other differences, prompted two rebel blocs to break away from him.
A smaller, hardline bloc formed the Abu Sayyaf, while a larger faction established the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has emerged as the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines and is engaged in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the government.
The emerging enmity between Misuari’s group and the Abu Sayyaf could bolster a decade-long campaign by the Philippines and Western countries to isolate the al-Qaida offshoot, which remains one of the most dangerous militant groups in Southeast Asia.