Google map of Ungkaya Pukan, Basilan.

ZAMBOANGA CITY – Skirmishes between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members backed by lawless elements are ongoing sporadically in Basilan province's hinterlands, a top military official said Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Domingo Gobway, 101st Infantry Brigade commander, said troops from the Army's 64th Infantry Battalion stationed in the detachment in Barangay Ulitan, Ungkaya Pukan, Basilan, are on the defensive position as fighting continues.

“As of now, the troops are on the defensive position since the MILF are the ones attacking,” Gobway said in a text message.

The firefight broke out at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday when a soldier stationed at a detachment in Barangay Ulitan was slightly bruised by sniper fire from an area occupied by MILF members and lawless elements.

Gobway said the MILF members involved in the gunfight are led by a certain Commander Huram, whose group entered the village fully-armed, in violation of the conditions previously set by the Army unit based in the area to keep lawless elements at bay.

Huram’s group, which is now holed up in Barangay Ulitan, allowed the lawless group to stay with them, the Army official alleged.

Gobway said the lawless individuals have provided reinforcements for Huram’s group in the ongoing firefight.

Several sources said that five MILF members were killed as the gunfight continued sporadically, but Gobway said this cannot be verified yet.

"We don’t know. There is no body count. We cannot confirm because they are carrying their casualties,” Gobway said.

He said there are calls from the MILF side for the troops to withdraw to stop the clashes.

“We cannot withdraw our troops in the area,” Gobway said, adding that there were no reported casualties on the government side as of this posting.

Gobway said the Army established a detachment in Barangay Ulitan to prevent the entry of lawless groups into the area, as what happened in September this year.

Deeply concerned

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity (OPAPRU) on Wednesday expressed deep concern over the ongoing firefight.

"First of all, we would like to assure local government officials and the residents of Basilan that when the hostilities broke out, the OPAPRU reached out right away to both parties in order to de-escalate the situation,” OPARU chief Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said in a statement.

He said the peace mechanisms, particularly the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), are now on the ground and doing everything possible to diffuse tensions and prevent further the loss of lives.

“We would therefore like to call for sobriety, as we wait for the results of the CCCH and AHJAG inquiry to be disclosed. We cannot allow this latest incident in Basilan to negate the major gains we have achieved over the years. Let us rally behind the national government’s banner of peace, reconciliation and unity, and work together to restore peace in the province," Galvez said.

The Government Implementing Panel for the GPH-MILF Peace Accord also called for sobriety and prudence of stakeholders to assail misinformation on the incident.

“We ask the cooperation of our partners from the MILF to stay the course and work together with the ceasefire mechanisms and government forces to uphold the ceasefire agreement which has been a product of arduous efforts from both parties in the interest of the welfare of our people and the preservation of the peace agreement,” it added. (with Priam Nepomuceno/PNA)