MILF staying clear of offensive vs Abu

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 September 2000

THE MORO Islamic Liberation Front yesterday distanced itself from the Abu Sayyaf by ordering its fighters in Sulu to avoid any encounter with government soldiers who are pursuing the bandit group through the island's forests.

MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu said their forces were under instruction to stay out of the way of government soldiers and fight back only if retreat is not possible or if faced with imminent threat to their lives.

If we have to fight back, this is not in sympathy with the Abu Sayyaf, he said.

The Armed Forces launched a massive operation in Jolo on Saturday in a bid to rescue 19 hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf. They consist of 13 Filipinos, three Malaysians, two French, and an American.

The MILF has forces in Sulu and Basilan where the Abu Sayyaf is operating. Kabalu declined to reveal the MILF's strength in the two areas, particularly in Sulu, but admitted that they have a unit in Panamao town.

If our forces and sympathizers are going to be damaged, they are to fight back, Kabalu said. But this does not mean that we are in alliance with the Abu Sayyaf.

Kabalu said that the MILF considers as un-Islamic the activities of the Abu Sayyaf whose leaders style themselves as Islamic freedom fighters.

We condemn the activities of the Abu Sayyaf, Kabalu said. Kidnapping and other criminal acts are alien to Islam.

The hostage crisis started five months ago when the Abu Sayyaf captured 21 people from a Malaysian island resort. All but one, a Filipino dive instructor, has been released. But the gunmen have repeatedly taken other captives to replenish their pool of hostages.

Kabalu recalled that way back in May, the MILF had offered the government its help in freeing the first group of hostages, but the offer was turned down.

At that time, heavy fighting was raging between government forces and the MILF in Central Mindanao.

Perhaps the government didn't want us to gain credit, Kabalu said.

The MILF is not known to be maintaining an encampment in Sulu although the Moro National Liberation Front of Nur Misuari is known to have one.

A number of MNLF fighters who were not integrated either in the armed forces or police as part of the 1996 peace agreement between the government and MNLF have been allowed not only to hold on to their firearms but also maintain camps in Sulu.