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Military launches air strikes

The Armed Forces has launched air strikes as part of its law enforcement operations against the notorious kidnapping group of Juaning Abdulsalam in Zamboanga Sibugay.

Acting Philippine Army spokesperson Maj. Harold Cabunoc said a 200-strong combined elements of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Army have conducted the operations backed by OV-10 gunships and armored vehicles in Sitio (sub-village) Taib, Labatan village in Payao town, Zamboanga Sibugay. There is no recognized area of temporary stay for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the area, Cabunoc said.

Philippine Army Chief Lieutenant General Arturo Ortiz has ordered pursuit operations against all lawless elements in the areas while ensuring that the ceasefire agreement is strictly observed

In a separate statement, Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, Western Mindanao Command chief, said that the MILF has claimed that Abdulsalam is one of their commanders. Ferrer added that the MILF can assist government security forces in capturing Abdulsalam through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

The attack against lawless elements came a day after the MILF’s 114 Base Command led by Hassan Asnawi launched an ambush attack against military forces killing two soldiers and five civilians in Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte. This is the latest in a series of skirmishes between military forces and MILF rebels amid on-going peace talks between the government and the MILF central leadership.

Two weeks ago, at least 19 soldiers were killed in a series of encounters and ambushes in Basilan. The MILF has admitted to launching the ambushes but said that these were retaliatory attacks against the military who they claim to have breached the existing ceasefire agreement.

On Tuesday, Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Oban flew to Zamboanga City to direct air and ground operations against MILF “rogue elements.” Stressing that the targets of the military offensive were “lawless elements” in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province, Oban presided over a regional command conference and reminded soldiers to strictly adhere to the rules of engagement and to respect human rights.

MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq yesterday protested the government action. “Our men were being targeted. What they are doing is launching attacks in the guise of running after kidnappers and other lawless elements. But the actual targets are our men. They have done this before,” he said.

Al Haq said that as a result of the offensive, a visit of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team had been postponed.

The MILF, through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), told their military counterparts that Waning Abdusalam, one of the objects of the offensive, was no longer a member. The MILF also claimed that the Jakaira brothers, Putot and Ogis, who are also wanted for kidnapping, had fled to Basilan.

The military earlier demanded that the MILF turn over Abdusalam and the Jakairas. It has also demanded the surrender of rebel leaders Dan Asnawi, Long Malat and Furuji Indama who led the ambush in Al-Barka, Basilan, on October 18 that killed 19 Army Special Forces soldiers and wounded 14 others.

Interior Secretary Jesse M. Robredo on Tuesday said he believed some local officials were involved in lawless activities in Mindanao, including last week’s rebel attacks. He said the Department of the Interior and Local Government had drawn up a list of about 40 names, from municipal mayor to barangay councilman, whose loyalties were suspect.

He noted that in some towns, the local officials were related by blood to the criminals, some of them belonging to breakaway MILF factions. He said once an investigation proved the connections; charges would be filed against the officials, although he did not give a time frame.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chiz Escudero has questioned the granting of “areas of temporary stay” to the MILF, saying the safe havens for the secessionist group in parts of Mindanao is similar to the establishment of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, which would have given the MILF a sovereign state replete with its own police and banking system.

Escudero wanted to know how the agreement on the ATS came about, its coverage and limitations, including its legal basis. The senator said the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp) should be made to explain the ATS.

“For example, I’m roaming in Mindanao, how would I know if I’m in an ATS and all of a sudden I am being arrested and asked to produce various permits for companions who might be carrying firearms? The Opapp should be made accountable and it should be made to explain on this.”

For the MILF, the real issue in the October 18 encounter in Al-Barka, Basilan, was “coordination,” or more to the point, “uncoordinated movement of troops” – and the so-called “area of temporary stay” (ATS) was only incidental.

“The ceasefire agreement provides that such a movement of troops, granting that the MILF was not the target, should be coordinated first through the coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities or the ad hoc joint action group (ahjag),” said Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of the rebel group’s peace negotiating panel.

The Ahjag was set up in 2002 as an avenue for joint efforts by the MILF and government in the “isolation and interdiction of all criminal syndicates, kidnap-for-ransom groups and other criminal groups, including the so-called ‘lost commands’ operating in Mindanao.”

Iqbal said the delineation of an ATS was not reflected in the agreements of the government and MILF peace panels. What were delineated or “acknowledged” were seven MILF camps although after the 2000 all-out war, the rebel group “abandoned fixed camping.”

A report of the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, of the October 18 incident said an ATS was designated for the rebel group in May-July 2008.

During this time, MILF forces and their families temporarily relocated to Barangay (village) Ginanta to give way to a military operation against the Abu Sayyaf bandit group in Al-barka, Tipo-tipo and Ungkaya Pukan towns, the report said.

The MILF forces from outside Ginanta returned to their communities of origin after the military operations. But even assuming that the ATS in Ginanta was still effective, Iqbal said, the deployment of the Army’s Special Forces troops was “five kilometers away from the highway.”

Iqbal said the Ginanta ATS was nearer the highway and “Cambug is deeper inside.” This is why the MILF considers the October 18 encounter in Al-barka as “the offshoot of a deliberate attack by government troops.”

“Are [MILF commander Dan] Asnawi and his forces/relatives traitors for shooting the Army’s Special Forces who attacked them?” Iqbal said.

The government peace panel is revisiting provisions in the ceasefire agreement on the grant of ATS to the rebels, the military said. In a briefing at Camp Aguinaldo, Colonel Dickson Hermoso, chief of the Armed Forces’ Peace Process Office, said the review was prompted by the Oct. 18 encounter with MILF renegades that left 19 Army soldiers dead. The renegades then retreated to an “ATS” some four kilometers from the site of the clash.

Since that encounter, other skirmishes followed in Zamboanga Sibugay involving “lawless elements,” prompting the military and the police to launch air, sea and ground assaults on the renegades in Payao town.

“There is a need to review and amend the ceasefire agreement so we can go back to the question of sincerity” on the part of the MILF in pursuing peace, he said. Hermoso cited certain provisions in the implementing guidelines to the General Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities between the government and the MILF.

There have been a lot of allegations and counter allegations between the military and the MILF over the October 18 incident. The need for an authentic fact-finding investigation cannot be overstated.

A lot of questions remain unanswered. Who sent a platoon of Special Forces fresh out of training into a lion’s den? There were obviously glaring violations of basic military doctrine in the encounter.

We should also question the MILF’s ability to rein in on its members. Is the government talking to the right entity regarding peace? The bad eggs are conveniently tagged as simply ‘renegade MILF’ when they commit criminal acts. The MILF leadership must show that it could control its members. The rebel group must prove it is worthy of being in the negotiating table.