COTABATO CITY, September 9, 2003 (STAR) By John Unson  - Tension has gripped communities along critical stretches of the Secretary Narciso Ramos Highway in Matanog, Maguindanao since the other day, triggered by a bloody four-hour firefight between soldiers and local members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Local officials have confirmed that a soldier, who was killed in the encounter, was decapitated by the MNLF fighters, who were driven away by reinforcements from the Army’s 603rd Infantry Brigade, which has jurisdiction over Matanog and surrounding towns.

Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, described as "unfortunate" the hostilities in Barangay Bugasan Sur in Matanog, the gateway to Camp Abubakar, the former bastion of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and now a "peace zone" guarded by the 603rd IB.

Local officials said the firefight erupted when patrolling combatants of the 64th Infantry Battalion chanced upon a group of heavily armed farmers belonging to the MNLF.

The armed men reportedly opened fire, without warning, at the soldiers, provoking a running gunbattle.

Three MNLF combatants were reportedly killed in the firefight, which forced dozens of Muslim families in Bayanga Sur to evacuate to safer grounds for fear of getting trapped in the crossfire.

Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema, secretary-general of the MNLF, said they would initiate an inquiry into the incident and work out measures with the military on how to prevent a repeat of such an incident in areas where there are soldiers and MNLF forces.

"In the meantime, we are initiating means of defusing tension in the area through the efforts of the MNLF leaders and officials there," Sema said.

On Sept. 2, 1996, the MNLF and the government forged a peace pact that subsequently made the front an ally of the Armed Forces in maintaining peace and order in areas covered by the truce.

Village officials said MNLF forces in Bayanga Sur and adjoining barangays have been bracing for a possible military operation against them.

Senga said they have enlisted the help of local officials and religious leaders in Matanog to peacefully resolve the conflict to stave off further hostilities between the MNLF and the military there.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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