KOTA KINABALU: Muslim leaders in southern Philippines are appealing to Moro leaders and the armed forces for an immediate ceasefire on Jolo island as six days of gunbattles are causing thousands of people to flee.
They have sent a memorandum to President Gloria Arroyo asking her to order a ceasefire as the ongoing conflict between the military and the Moro National Liberation Front has displaced several thousand people.
“Both sides must remember that it is the innocent people of Sulu who are most affected in this conflict,” said Amina Rasul, convenor of the Philippines Council on Islam and Democracy.
She said an investigation was needed to determine what really sparked off the latest round of fighting reportedly involving about 500 to 800 MNLF gunmen and more than 3,000 soldiers supported by attack planes and helicopters.
Some 3,000 to 5,000 families have been displaced since running battles on Sunday between the Philippine marines and the Moro rebels loyal to their jailed former leader Nur Misuari in five municipalities on Jolo island.
More than 100 soldiers and Moro rebels have been killed or wounded in the fighting triggered by the alleged shooting of a family when marines entered MNLF-controlled areas on Sunday in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf gunmen.
Sulu Co-ordinating Council chief Amilbahar Amilhassan told The Star that at least 2,000 of the evacuees were sheltered in centres in Jolo town alone but was not certain how many more families have fled to nearby islands and the port city of Zamboanga.
“There seems to be no let-up in the fighting. Our people hope that both sides will let peace prevail,” Amilbahar said.
Arroyo has assured ambassadors of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) that the overall peace process was still in place.
Fears of a spillover of the fighting to other parts of Mindanao controlled by the MNLF were also played down by the government, which was preparing to hold another round of OIC-brokered peace talks in Kuala Lumpur next month.
When asked about any influx of people fleeing Jolo, Malaysian navy Region Two commander Admiral Datuk Abdul Aziz Jaafar told The Star that security forces have identified possible areas where infiltration could occur along Sabah’s borders.
He said the situation along the border areas was normal.
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