07/26/2007, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Basilan: 5 thousand flee in fear of renewed conflict

by Santosh Digal
The Philippine army and MILF are once again on a war footing. People abandon villages in fear of being caught in the cross fire. Appeal from Christian and Muslim leaders for peace and dialogue.

Basilan (AsiaNews) – More than 5,000 people have fled their homes at a town in Basilan where government troops are expected to mount an assault against Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces responsible for the death of 14 Marines, of whom 10 were beheaded and mutilated.

Bai Racma Ambolodto,-Imam, chief Social Welfare Officer in Mindanao launched the alarm: “Starting last Sunday 983 families or 4,915 people from six areas in Al-Barka town have fled. They moved on their own because they fear for their lives, that they might get caught in the crossfire”. He specified that affected residents are from the villages of Guinanta, Macalang, Linuan, Magcawa and Danapah, and the sub-village of Bohe Lunang.

On July 23, Armed Forces chief General Hermogenes Esperon gave the go-ahead to military forces in Basilan to hunt for the killers of the Marines, who had been involved in the search for PIME missionary Fr. ’ Giancarlo Bossi, who was released in Lanao del Norte on July 19 after 39 days in captivity. The military initially tagged the Abu Sayyaf Group, a terrorist band blamed for a series of kidnappings and bombings, but the MILF owned up to what it called a "legitimate encounter". The MILF has vehemently disowned the beheadings and maintain its forces killed 23 Marines. The Moro rebel group has also said five of its members and a Muslim cleric died in the gun battle.The government and MILF have recently been trying to forge a peace accord but talks have stalled on the issue of ancestral domain or how much territory to include in a proposed Moro homeland. Meanwhile Christian and Muslim leaders are appealing for calm and patience; Ramon Ma. Bernabe, from the Order of Mary Immaculate, urged both government troops and the MILF for patience and restraint: “The violent conflict has already taken so many lives-combatants from the government and MILF, and innocent civilians. There should be no room for such viciousness, on whichever side, in an already cruel war,” Along the same lines is an appeal from Ombra Gandambra, Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA) director in Northern Mindanao, who warned that, an escalation of the conflict “could spread to areas where there is peace”.  

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