Ceasefire declared in Basilan after deadly clashes between Philippine troops and Muslim rebels

Representatives from the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command with counterparts from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (in blue) after signing a ceasefire agreement on Thursday. PHOTO: WESTERN MINDANAO COMMAND

MANILA - The Philippine government and rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) inked a ceasefire agreement on Thursday, following days of combat in the south that killed at least seven and threatened to set back the decades-long peace process in the main southern island of Mindanao.

A “miscommunication” triggered clashes on Tuesday between government troops and the Muslim rebels in Ungkaya Pukan town in the island province of Basilan, located off the coast of Mindanao, the military said on Thursday.

At least three soldiers and four MILF rebels were killed, while dozens were injured.

Fearing further bloodshed, representatives from the government and the MILF agreed to a ceasefire, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity said in a statement on Friday.

Brigadier-General Domingo Gobway, commander of the Philippine Army’s Joint Task Force Basilan, told reporters that fighting broke out midday on Tuesday.

Soldiers and local officials had gone to Ulitan village in Ungkaya Pukan to confront a group of MILF members who were allegedly carrying weapons, a violation of the peace pact forged with the government in 2014.

The clashes erupted after a rebel sniper supposedly fired a shot and hit the helmet of a soldier. The gun fight extended to two neighbouring towns, forcing around 1,500 families to flee.

Among those killed was Mr Hapids Abdal, 20, a freshman criminology student who survived armed conflicts between the military and Muslim rebels in Basilan in the early 2000s.

“He was just a boy, dreaming of becoming a policeman to serve the people,” Dr Arlyn Jawad Jumao-as, executive director of Save the Children of War, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.

The non-governmental organisation had provided Mr Abdal and other war victims with trauma therapy in 2004.

The predominantly Catholic Philippines has been plagued by insurgencies for decades, including Muslim separatist violence waged by the MILF that has killed more than 100,000 since the 1970s.

MILF commanders eventually forged a peace deal with the government in 2014, agreeing to decommission their weapons and to abandon their cessation plans.

As part of the agreement, the MILF now rule over the Bangsamoro region, a group of islands in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines which was granted autonomy in 2019.

Presidential peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr said the ceasefire agreement on Thursday meant peace mechanisms between the national government and the MILF are working.

“We are also hopeful that armed clashes such as these will not happen again, so as not to undermine the major gains we have achieved under the Bangsamoro peace process,” he added.

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