MAGUINDANAO: MUSLIM FARMERS SEEK MORE ARMY ENGINEERS

PAGALUNGAN, MAGUINDANAO, February 16, 2004 (STAR) By John Unson - Muslim farmers in the Buliok complex, a former enclave here of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are clamoring for the immediate deployment of more Army engineers to hasten rehabilitation projects in their communities.

A year ago, the Marine Corps and the Army’s 6th Infantry Division hoisted the Philippine flag in Buliok, now a peace zone with many rehabilitation projects.

Local officials said the presence of a brigade-sized military engineering contingent at the former guerrilla base would not only speed up the construction of farm-to-market roads, but would also complement efforts of the 6th ID and the 2nd Marine Brigade to foster cordiality with local rebel units.

But Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, 6th ID commander, who inspected government projects in Buliok last Thursday, said he is unsure if the military can deploy an Army engineering unit in Buliok since Army engineers are involved in many government projects across the country.

Humanitarian Projects

Meanwhile, Senga said Army and Marine units guarding strategic spots around the Buliok complex have to beef up humanitarian projects and low-level peace dialogues with MILF rebels who now live peaceful lives, tilling their lands in nearby communities.

Senga refuted talk that the military would soon vacate the Buliok complex at the boundary of this town and Pikit, North Cotabato, as a supposed concession to the MILF for the resumption of peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week.

Muslim residents here and in Pikit oppose the pullout of Marine and Army combatants from the Buliok complex which, they fear, might again become a lair of lawless elements, including the notorious Pentagon kidnapping syndicate.

"We are hoping and praying that President Arroyo will not allow the MILF to regain control of the area. Life for the people there will again be miserable if that happens," a public school teacher told Maj. Onting Alon, 6th ID deputy spokesman, in a text message last Wednesday.

A Muslim preacher, who asked not to be identified, said farmers at the Pikit-Pagalungan boundary, where kidnappers had kept their victims, can now freely cultivate crops without being preyed on by rebels for extortion.

"The presence of soldiers in the Buliok complex has also restrained local feuding Muslim clans from attacking each other. Some of them have even reconciled with the help of soldiers securing farming communities there," a local official told The STAR.

Outreach Missions

Since February, soldiers have provided medical and dental services to 3,456 people, including children of MILF rebels, in outreach missions.

Three months ago, the Army’s 54th Engineering Brigade turned over almost a hundred low-cost houses to local beneficiaries, including families of MILF rebels.

The housing projects here and in Pikit, bankrolled by Malacañang, are part of government efforts to transform Buliok and its surroundings into a progressive peace zone.

Col. Mohammad Ben Dolorfino, commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade, said they have begun "backdoor dialogues" with local rebel commanders since last year as part of confidence-building measures to encourage them to support rehabilitation projects.

"Many of them have returned to their villages in Buliok to live peacefully as farmers," Dolorfino said.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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