Philippine defense officials say fighting between government forces and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group has displaced some 20,000 residents of two southern provinces. The fighting is happening even though the two sides are in the midst of peace talks.
The government says it is conducting operations to root out what it calls criminal elements in areas claimed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Government forces say they are after current and former commanders of the MILF and members of the much smaller, Abu Sayyaf group, accused of killing soldiers and carrying out kidnappings for ransom.
During the first violent operation last week, the MILF said the military crossed into its area without alerting the rebel group beforehand. The group claimed responsibility for killing 19 soldiers, saying it was defending itself.
Rommel Banlaoi is a terrorism research and security studies expert. He says there are indications that the government in fact did not properly notify the rebels about the operation.
“I think they made some lapses by not coordinating with the MILF," said Banlaoi. "I think the Philippines has learned its lesson well and the AFP is more nuanced now in terms of running after lawless elements.”
President Benigno Aquino responded to the incident by firing two military officials. Earlier this week he declared that justice would be served against those criminal elements responsible.
Following the violence, Aquino reiterated that peace negotiations will continue despite calls from national politicians to suspend the ceasefire and go to war against the MILF.
MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar said in a statement that the group remains committed to the peace process and upholding the ceasefire. He says the MILF is convinced by the president’s sincerity.
Asia Foundation Country Director Steven Rood says so far the operations have not had a negative impact on the talks. But, he says, this could change.
“There is still the danger that these kinds of sparks could continue to spread," said Rood. "The fact of the matter is that the military and the MILF have different accounts of what is going on and the extent to which the activities are permitted or not permitted by the ceasefire. And so while we’re still in that phase of trying to sort it out, we do have the possibility of further escalation.”
The two sides are scheduled to hold peace talks next month, following a three-month hiatus after both sides reached an impasse.
**In an earlier version of this story we incorrectly reported that Rommel Banlaoi is a member of the International Monitoring Team. He is a terrorism research and security studies expert. VOA regrets the error.