Seven soldiers were injured as government troops clashed anew with Moro gunmen in Lamitan City, Basilan, on Friday, authorities said.

About 100 members of the Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) carried out an attack on a building near the city’s port 9:55 a.m., Col. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Army’s 104th Brigade, said.

Members of the Army’s 18th Infantry Battalion and Scout Rangers who were deployed to the area due to a previous clash on Thursday engaged the attacking gunmen, he said.

“Nagsimula ang bakbakan and then we were subjected by the enemy to mortar fires, but we were able to repulse their onslaught,” Galvez said.

“Ang palagay ko ang target talaga nila (gunmen) is makapasok dun sa sentro ng Lamitan,” he said.

Galvez expressed belief that the attack is related to the ongoing “standoff” between government troops and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF) members in Zamboanga City, just a boat ride away.

“Most probably it is related sa Zambo issue saka alam natin na ang Abu Sayyaf gusto nyang magkaroon ng leverage to gain support from the BIFF and the MNLF para maganda ang broad base niya for another recruitment,” he said.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces public affairs chief, said the clash lasted for two hours before the gunmen fled.

“The gunmen failed to overwhelm a ARMM-DPWH satellite building,” he said.

A military helicopter landed at the nearby Claret High School’s open ground to fetch the wounded soldiers.

Galvez said clashes on Thursday and Friday prompted the Lamitan City government to order evacuations.

Thursday’s clash in Brgy. Colonia left a militiaman and three Moro gunmen killed, and 12 other persons injured, according to the military.

As of Friday morning, at least 120 families or 2,000 persons have already evacuated, Ramon Santos, Office of Civil Defense-ARMM director, said.

The number of evacuees were still rising as of Friday afternoon, Santos said in a text message.

The evacuees came from Brgys. Bulanting, Campo Uno, Colonia, Cabobo, and Balobo, Senior Supt. Mario Dapilloza, Basilan provincial police director, said.

The evacuees, mostly women and children, are staying at the Datu Dizal evacuation center while other residents are still staying in their homes, he said.

Dapilloza shared Galvez’s view that the attacks are related to the standoff in Zamboanga City.

“This is a diversionary tactic ng Abu Sayyaf at lost command ng MNLF para ‘yung attention ay ma-focus naman dito, para magkaroon ng division ‘yung operating units sa ground sa Zamboanga,” he said.

Dapilloza said security has been tightened in Basilan since the standoff started.

“In place na ang security since mangyari ‘yung sa Zamboanga dahil we received intelligence reports na isusunod ang Lamitan… parang sa Zamboanga, parang balak nilang pasukin din,” he said.

Dapilloza said more policemen and soldiers have been sent to Maluso, another coastal town on the opposite site of the island-province. (John Roson)

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