02/03/2006, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Massacre of Christians in Jolo deals heavy blow to hopes for peace

Suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen knocked on door in a farm in Patikul, Mindanao, and opened fire after asking residents if they were Christian. Six people are confirmed dead, including a nine-month baby girl, and five others are seriously wounded.

Jolo (AsiaNews) – The massacre of Christians in Jolo "deals a heavy blow at hopes for peace" and is very dangerous because "any incident can now spark a war of religion," a local Catholic source (who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons) told AsiaNews as he commented this morning's attack against Christians in Patikul, a small town on Sulu Island near Jolo (Mindanao). The perpetrators could be foreign extremists from abroad, a missionary expert in Filipino affairs said.

Muslim extremists raided the farm over night in Patikul township, killing six Christians, including a nine-month infant girl, said Brigadier General Alexander Aleo, the island's military chief, who also confirmed that five other people were seriously wounded, among them a three-year old boy.

The gunmen appeared to be from the Abu Sayyaf (Bearers of the Sword) Group, a Muslim extremist organisation believed to be al-Qaeda-linked.

According to one eyewitness who survived, the attack was clearly motivated by religion. "Survivors of the carnage told military investigators that the attackers asked them for their religion. The gunmen left and then came back soon after and just opened fire on the Christians," Brig. General Aleo said.

Major Gamal Hayudini, a spokesman for the military's Southern Command, identified those killed as Itting Pontilla, 45; Emma Casipong, 16; Melanie Patinga, 9 months; Selma Patinga and Pedro Casipong.

Jolo is a well-known hotbed of Islamic extremism, but the situation "was improving and we could feel there was a willingness to talks and a desire for peace," said the local source. "After this incident, old wounds are bound to re-open," he lamented.

"There have been many sectarian murders of Catholics. These groups are targeting the Christian population in the area, which is rapidly shrinking. It is a dangerous situation: any spark could provoke a war of religion".

"A few months ago, after an attack, the military response against the population was very harsh. But it seemed that the situation had calmed down, that the extremists were willing to talk, but what happened gives the lie to that," he explained. "Still it all seems strange because Filipino Islamic militants had learnt to live with the population," he added.

Perhaps the answer can be found in the "infiltration by foreign extremist cells. The government knows about it and for this reason it is always changing entry rules for missionaries," the local source noted. "In several cases, Muslim extremists disguised as Muslim missionaries successfully entered the country. One cannot exclude that this is also happening in the Jolo area," he explained.

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