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Philippine Military Close to Ending Fighting in South

  • Heda Bayron

The Philippine military has stepped up its offensive on militant strongholds in the south, in a bid to quell more than a week of fighting. At least 75 people have been killed.

The Philippine Armed Forces say they are close to ending more than a week of bloodshed in the remote southern Sulu Province.

Military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Buenaventura Pascual, says about 200 militants are being cornered in a small village outside the provincial capital of Jolo. He says they are running out of food and ammunition.

"The group is holed up in Baranggay Bitan-ag and no support is coming from the Muslim populace," he said. "For one week of fighting, no other groups responded to their call."

Helicopter gun ships stepped up bombardment of the area, while hundreds more troops arrived in Sulu Monday.

Clashes erupted last week when armed men - opposed to a military offensive against the Abu Sayyaf violent kidnapping gang - attacked army outposts. The Abu Sayyaf claims to be fighting for a Muslim state on the southern Philippines and has been listed as a terrorist group - but has mainly been involved in kidnapping foreigners for huge ransoms.

The militants on Jolo are believed to include members of the Abu Sayyaf and followers of jailed former Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari.

This is the worst outbreak of violence in the south in recent years. More than 2,000 families have fled their homes because of the fighting.

The predominantly Muslim province of Sulu has historically been a hotbed of separatist rebellion.

Nur Misuari led the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), separatist movement there in the 1970s. In 1996, Mr. Misuari signed a peace agreement with Manila and was later elected governor of a Muslim autonomous province.

But his failed re-election bid in 2001 triggered a rampage by his supporters in Sulu, killing more than a hundred people. Since then, Mr. Misuari has been in detention in Manila on rebellion charges but has not yet faced trial.

In recent years, the Abu Sayyaf has been using Sulu as a base after being driven out of a neighboring province by a U.S.-Philippine joint anti-terror military exercise.

Julkipli Wadi, professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, says the fighting could endanger the 1996 peace agreement.

"There are many MNLF supporters and sympathizers outside of Sulu," he said. "They might just activate themselves and make the situation worse. They may not be willing to support the new clash in Sulu, but they might be forced to take some measures so that they will be able to pressure the government to really start the peace process all over again."

The Philippine Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has urged the militants to end the fighting. The MILF, which is not involved in the fighting, is continuing peace talks with the government.

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