(Mindanao Examiner) – A major military escalation on Jolo island in the southern Philippines threatens to undermine fragile relations with major insurgent groups and contribute to rising regional inter-faith tensions

Filipino troops are poised to launch a major offensive on the island of Jolofollowing the deaths of over 20 soldiers in clashes with insurgents last week. In all, over 50 people have been killed in the recent series of clashes between insurgents and government troops.

Thousands of civilians are reportedly fleeing the area as the military moves around 6,000 troops into position on Jolo ahead of an assault on radical Islamist group Abu Sayyaf and allied militias operating in the island’s mountainous interior.

Muslim militants have been fighting for autonomy or full independence fromManila since the 1970s. In the early years, the insurgency was led by the loose-knit Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its charismatic leaders. From the late 1970s, the MNLF began fragmenting into myriad small factions�

For its part, the radical Islamic Abu Sayyaf is keen to see a significant escalation of its ongoing low-scale insurrection against the Arroyo government in order to present itself as an effective opponent of both Manila and the US. The group has been responsible for a series of kidnappings, assassinations and bombings including an attack on a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 in which 100 people died�

As with the other offshoots of the MNLF, Abu Sayyaf seeks the secession of areas in the southern islands and Mindanao from the Philippines, though the envisaged state would be based on more fundamentalist schools of Sharia than the MILF.

Abu Sayyaf has recently undergone a leadership change with Yasser Igasan reportedly replacing Khadafi Janjalani who was killed by government forces last September.

The head of the police’s Intelligence Group, Romeo Ricardo, claimed that Janjalani and fellow Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Sulaiman, who was also killed recently, were the group’s primary contacts with other regional movements and its overseas financiers, the AP reports.

Speculation is growing that the movement’s greatly reduced strength in recent years could signal its imminent demise. Abu Sayyaf’s purported involvement in last week’s violence could well be an effort on the part of Igasan to end this decline through seizing the initiative, thereby cementing his leadership.

It is Abu Sayyaf’s radical leanings – the US alleges the group has ties to global al-Qaida and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah – and involvement in kidnappings that have seen the government label it a criminal group and refuse contacts.

The pending military operation on Jolo has drawn attention again to the role of US special forces in training and advising Filipino units involved in counter-insurgency operations. Filipino forces had failed until recently to make significant inroads in decades of operations against Abu Sayyaf and other groups. Though reduced in numbers from a high of 1,000-2,000 to 300-400 fighters, Abu Sayyaf has never been successfully cornered�

In 2006, a State of Emergency was declared after a coup plot by right-wing military officers was exposed. Subsequent anti-terror legislation gives security forces the right to hold suspects for up to three days without charge, to seize their assets and use wiretaps.

From a geo-strategic standpoint, the reinvigoration of the Filipino conflict threatens to spread a wave of instability through a region where political Islam is coming of age.

This is particularly true in Indonesia where calls for the electoral overthrow of the secular state are drawing increasing numbers of adherents. The rising tensions in the archipelago have been underlined by Jemaah Islamiyeh bombings and clashes between Christian and Muslim villagers, allegedly backed by Islamist fighters drawn from across the region, which killed hundreds in several eastern islands from 1999-2002.

The Jolo clashes also come amidst growing unrest in nearby Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces where alleged army atrocities against insurgents and civilians have raised popular resentment against the government.

The interplay between these various conflicts and the fundamentalist organizations involved was further demonstrated by military claims that two Indonesian militants were involved in last week’s clashes on Jolo. The pair, Umar Patek and Dulmatin, have been implicated in Jemaah Islamiyeh’s 2002 bombing attacks in Bali

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