MAGUINDANAO (Juan Magtanggol / 29 Aug) The military tightened security in the southern Philippines after a firefight erupted between soldiers and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces in North Cotabato's Midsayap town, officials said Tuesday.
Officials said one rebel was killed in the fighting that broke out early Monday in the farming village of Polomugin, where MILF forces took at least 18 people hostage. The hostages were freed unharmed later in the day after peaceful negotiations by politicians.
The MILF denied rebels took hostage and said the villagers were trapped in the fighting between rebels and followers of a former guerilla leader. "There were no hostage-taking and the villagers were trapped because of the fighting between the two warring groups," Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, told the Mindanao Examiner.
Officials said about three dozen rebels swooped down on the Polomugin village and strafed houses, wounding two civilians.
Kabalu said the rebels were fighting the group of former MILF commander identified only as Bab. "The fighting was triggered by old feud and had nothing to do with the military," he said.
The MILF is currently negotiating peace with Manila, but clashes between soldiers and rebels continue sporadically in some areas in the southern Philippines, with both sides accusing each other of violating a 5-year truce.
Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, a spokesman for the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said the military was just protecting the villagers. "The gunmen opened fire on our soldiers who were protecting the villagers, sparking armed clashes that left one attacker dead. The moment the lives of the civilians are at stake, then we will have to take whatever actions to protect the innocent," he said in a separate interview.
The fighting broke out the same day security forces arrested three suspected MILF bombers while about to board a ferry bound for Manila at the Polloc port in Parang town in Maguindanao province. Officials said soldiers seized explosives from the three men.
Reports identified the trio as Sammy Gampong, Razak Macarimbang and Wahad Sandingan, all natives of Matanog town.
Kabalu said Gampong was an MILF member, but denied is a bomber and insisted the evidence against them were planted. "We have witnesses who will tell authorities that the suspects were unarmed. There are no explosives; authorities only planted the evidence for a still unknown reason," he said.
The MILF on Tuesday protested the arrest and demanded that authorities free the men. "We have filed a protest with the Philippine government about the arrest of the innocent men. This is a violation of the cease-fire agreement and we will bring this matter to the peace negotiators," Kabalu said.
Ando said civilian informants who had knowledge of a supposed terror plot led security forces in the operation to arrest the men. "The informants provided us intelligence and helped us arrest the three men, who were allegedly on a bombing mission in Manila," he said.
Other security sources said the trio was allegedly members of the MILF's special operations group, tagged by the military and police as behind previous bombings in the southern Philippines.
The MILF is the country's largest Muslim rebel group which is currently negotiating peace with Manila.
The ferry was bound for Manila, but is expected to stop in the ports of Zamboanga City and Iloilo to pick up cargoes and passengers.
Kabalu assured the government that the MILF is strictly observing the truce it signed in 2001.
Authorities were also investigating whether the trio had links with the Abu Sayyaf group tied to Jemaah Islamiya. The Abu Sayyaf had previously bombed a 10,000 ton Super Ferry 14 off the Manila Bay while it was heading for Bacolod in the central Philippines on February 27, 2004.
More than 100 passengers from the 900 people onboard were killed when a fire spread to the decks. The Abu Sayyaf group claimed responsibility soon after the incident, but the government initially dismissed the claim as a "propaganda ploy".
In March, however, a group of Abu Sayyaf members were arrested over the incident, including one man who allegedly confessed to planting the bomb.
The latest arrest coincided with earlier warnings of bombings during the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 in the United States. Authorities said the Abu Sayyaf would bomb civilian targets in Manila. The group has been blamed the Abu Sayyaf for some of the worst terror attacks in the country.