ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines
A one-time rebel group that laid siege to a city in the Philippines south in 2013 to protest the terms of an ongoing peace process has sought to deny it has forged an alliance with an al-Qaeda linked group, despite Abu Sayyaf militants attending one of its regional meetings.
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) spokesman Absalum Cerveza told radio dzMM in an interview Tuesday that some of the militants -- who have also been linked with Daesh -- were present as the meeting coincided with a "kanduli" (Moro feast) and that they were related to MNLF members.
He denied reports that the MNLF had invited the Abu Sayyaf to establish ties.
"The Abu Sayyaf members were there... but as to their affiliation, that is not the issue. They are just there for their relatives," Cerveza said.
He dismissed allegations that the MNLF were protecting the Abu Sayyaf and its extortion and abduction activities.
"There was no security installed to prevent non-MNLF members from entering. Everybody was welcome to come," he added.
"We have distanced ourselves from the Abu Sayyaf. We do not like to be attached to their shenanigans. If what they have been doing, that's theirs. We do not have control over them just like the military has no control over them."
The MNLF is internationally recognized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), but some of its factions are opposed to an ongoing peace process between the government and MNLF breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
In September 2013, a group led by MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari laid siege to the predominantly Christian city of Zamboanga following the MILF-government peace deal, which he claimed is a betrayal of an 1996 OIC-brokered agreement, has left his organization short-changed, and granted Muslims in the region lesser autonomy.
The Abu Sayyaf also broke away from the MNLF, and has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion since the 1990s in a self-determined fight for an independent Islamic province in the Philippines.
Cerveza revealed in the radio dzMM interview that fugitive Misuari presided over the Jan. 10 meeting in the southern Philippines island Sulu -- a hotbed of Abu Sayyaf activity.
Misuari went into hiding after MNLF forces were defeated by government troops in the siege that left more than 300 civilians, police and army soldiers dead and scores wounded.
"It was a general consultation and parliamentary meeting called to discuss urgent matters and what actions to be taken to give justice to some things that the government has ignored," he said.
More than 2,000 MNLF members from all over the southern Philippines are reported to have gathered for the meeting.
Around 200 had arrived in Zamboanga City Jan. 9 to take a boat to Sulu, triggering panic among residents still suffering from trauma suffered during the 2013 siege.
ABS-CBN News reported that the MNLF had discussed plans during the meeting for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Jeddah on Jan. 25-27, and the replacement of the late Ustadz Zain Jali by Alibashier Sidri as new chair of the Bangsamoro Assembly.
The Assembly will be the legislature of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, a proposed autonomous region of the Philippines under the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the preliminary peace agreement signed between MILF and the government. Since 1977, the MNLF has been an observer member of the OIC.
During the interview Cerveza confirmed that Misuari faces several charges for the 2013 siege.
"We do not like to deny that. I told him not to get exposed so as not to be caught," the spokesman said.
He earlier told Inquirer.net that government security forces would have had difficulty arresting Misuari due to the thousands of MNLF members and supporters present.
“The meeting was in full coordination with the local authorities, and maybe they made an evaluation about the repercussion,” Mudjahab said.
He claimed that an arrest warrant for Misuari had yet to be served.