KORONADAL CITY -- The state of emergency in Maguindanao might be extended in the wake of looting and fresh clashes that erupted between armed followers of the Ampatuans and Moro rebels in the province.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan G. Ponce, spokesperson of the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said a two-and-a-half hour firefight between the armed followers of the beleaguered Ampatuan clan and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) erupted in Datu Hoffer town Thursday afternoon, while looting were reported in some municipalities in Maguindanao.

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These incidents were a cause of concern that the Palace is now studying the possibility of extending the state of emergency in the southern province, said Deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar on Saturday.

“If the violence continues... this would be an important factor in the decision of the NSC (National Security Council) whether or not to maintain the state of emergency in Maguindanao. That does not help the case for lifting the state of emergency,” he said on government-run DZRB radio.

The sporadic firefight occurred from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday in the upper portion of Datu Hoffer's Limpongo village. It started in Dapiawan, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, and stretched towards the interior villages in the tri-boundary of Shariff Aguak, Mamasapano and Datu Hofer towns.

"The firefight was more of a rido (family feud)," Ponce said in a phone interview.

A report from the Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom) showed that members of the MILF’s 104th Base Command under Commanders Mando and Castro ambushed the group of Datu Saudi Ampatuan Councilor Tamano Mamalapat, who allegedly led a private army of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao.

A report by Ponce, however, said the group of Commander Castro ambushed and killed Councilor Junreal Kamaong, 37, of Datu Saudi Ampatuan.

Kamaong, an ally of former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., was shot by two armed men who approached the victim from behind when he had a stopover at a public market to buy something, Ponce said.

His relatives, who are members of a Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO) in Saudi Ampatuan town, retaliated and hunted the ambushers in a running gun battle that left five persons dead, Ponce added.

MILF Spokesperson Eid Kabalu, for his part, said the armed conflict erupted because of a long standing family feud involving Tamungawan, Mamalapat and Basco families.

He said Datumanong Tamungawan belonged to the MILF's 104th base command in Datu Piang, while Mamalapat is a CVO leader of the Ampatuan clan.

Mamalapat and his men were pursuing the ambushers and killers of councilor Kamaong but they were ambushed by the followers of Tamungawan, led by Commander Castro.

"These personalities have long standing feud over ownership of vast track of lands in Datu Saudi Ampatuan and Datu Piang," Kabalu said.

He did not deny that some MILF members were involved in the family feud "but they acted on their own and not mandated by the organization."

As of Saturday, acting Maguindanao Police Chief Senior Superintendent Alex Lenesis said his command is still conducting thorough investigation to determine the real cause of the firefight.

There was no evacuation by civilians as the sporadic firefight was cut by the deployment of military troops to the area, said Ponce.

The fresh firefight between the armed groups happened despite the presence of 15 Army battalions in Maguindanao or at least 4,500 soldiers.

But Ponce and Kabalu said the government-MILF ceasefire mechanism has been in place to prevent the escalation of the conflict.

The manhunt against CVOs of the Ampatuans continued Saturday while appeal for their surrender is in the air.

The CVO operating in Shariff Aguak, Mamasapano, Datu Hofer, Datu Unsay and Ampatuan towns have deactivated following the November 23 Maguindanao massacre, where some 100 CVOs were allegedly involved.

It was also after the carnage that Maguindanao, along with Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City, was placed under state of emergency by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Olivar said this state of emergency has not yet been lifted and might even be extended with the recent violence.

The MILF though said it has already deployed a task force to stop looting in some towns in Maguindanao despite objections from the local military.

The task force, according to the MILF, will be moving “low profile” on the ground and will have fewer members.

“We cannot allow this chaos to proceed without doing something to stop it,” the commander of the task force said. (BSS of Sun.Star Davao/JMR/Sunnex)