Correspondents shot at

CMFR/PHILIPPINES – Three Mindanao correspondents were reportedly shot at during a supposed clash between the Philippine Army and alleged members of the separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on 1 October 2008 in Maguindanao. Maguindanao is approximately 903 kms from Manila . However, the MILF said it had no troops in the area at the time, and accused the Army of shooting at the photographers so they would stop taking pictures.

Agence France Press photographer Mark Navales, Philippine Daily Inquirer correspondent Jeoffrey Maitem, and GMA News correspondent Ferdinand Cabrera were taking photographs and footage of burning houses along the national highway in Pagatin village when the incident happened, the Manila newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

“We ducked for cover inside our van. Our driver hurriedly left the area. Some sniper bullets were going our direction,” Navales told the Inquirer. GMA-7 TV also caught the incident on camera (watch the video here).

The fighting started around 9 a.m. (local time) after soldiers allegedly spotted members of MILF Commander Ameril Umbra Kato’s group along the national highway, the Inquirer reported. The government troops are hunting Kato and another MILF commander for allegedly attacking several towns in Mindanao last August 2008 during which several civilians were killed.

“That’s the same area where the rebels who ambushed a military convoy on Monday (29 September) positioned themselves. The houses burned there was due to the fighting and we have nothing to do with it,” Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, spokesperson of the Army’s 6th Division, told the Inquirer.

In an interview with GMA-7, Philippine Army spokesperson Maj. Armand Rico said that “a lawless MILF group” was firing at the correspondents. “Hindi po maiwasan na itong ilan sa ating mga kasamahan, kaibigan sa media ay maging subject dun sa firing na ginagawa nitong lawless MILF group (We can’t prevent some of our friends from the media’s being subjects of the lawless MILF group’s attack).”

But the MILF has denied that it was even in the area. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told the Inquirer that “We have no troop movement today. The bursts of fire that happened only came from the government side.”

“I think it’s only part of their move so reporters would not be able to take pictures of houses still on fire,” Kabalu said.

Firefights between the MILF and Philippine government forces resumed in August after the signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) was stalled. The MOA-AD if signed would have given way to the creation of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity and the drafting of a final peace agreement. Peace negotiations between the MILF and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines started in 1997.

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