Manila, June 24, 2003 By Marichu Villanueva (Star) President Arroyo expressed doubts yesterday about the peace overtures of Hashim Salamat, chairman of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The Chief Executive’s change of mind came after government troops seized a cache of C-4 explosives from an "MILF area" somewhere in Maguindanao the other day.

The military also said troops would continue "punitive action" against the MILF despite Salamat’s renunciation of terrorism and willingness to discuss peace.

Maj. Gen. Cristolito Balaoing, commander of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, said Salamat was either lying or he is not in control of his field commanders.

"His denial is contradicted by the actuality on the ground," he said. "Evidence on the ground point that they are involved in terrorism."

Soldiers found materials for bomb-making in MILF camps in the Lanao provinces, said Balaoing, the commander the Army’s biggest infantry battalion.

Speaking at yesterday’s inauguration of the Muelle del Rio linear park along the Pasig River in Intramuros, Manila, Mrs. Arroyo said the MILF leadership should match their words with "concrete actions" to convince the government of their sincerity.

"In regard the peace overtures of the MILF, we will respond with a policy of calibrated reciprocation so that terrorist intrusions are effectively checked and civilian communities are not put in harm’s way," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said she has instructed the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security, headed by Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, to review and evaluate the latest peace initiatives of Salamat.

"I take note that these peace overtures come hand-in-hand with the discovery of deadly explosives in an MILF area and credible revelations of MILF links with transnational terrorist groups," she said.

Now is the time for the MILF to purge its armories of terrorist weapons and engage in earnest peace talks shorn of deception, Mrs. Arroyo added.

However, Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. said yesterday the government should restart the stalled peace negotiations, now that Salamat has publicly renounced terrorism.

"It is time for us to seize the moment and immediately restart the peace talks between the government and the MILF," he said.

Guingona, a native of Mindanao, said he welcomes Salamat’s declaration that the MILF was "renouncing terrorism," and vowed to overcome all obstacles in the search for peace in Mindanao.

"All of us are tired and weary of the war which has continued to bring untold suffering to all Mindanaoans — Christians, Muslims and lumads," he said.

"We must now allow the door to peace to open fully with both the government and the MILF displaying not only restraint but good faith," he added.

Guingona said he was appealing to the proper authorities to observe whatever appropriate procedures, within the bounds of law, that would allow the issuance of a safe-conduct pass to Salamat and other members of the MILF peace panel.

"I believe such actions can be done, in the spirit of peace and justice, without compromising the criminal complaints now pending against certain MILF personalities, similar to what were observed when the government held peace negotiations with officials of the communist National Democratic Front," he said.

Guingona said the cessation of hostilities would allow the tens of thousands of displaced civilians to go back to their villages and try to resume normal lives.

"The government, with the help of non-government groups and foreign aid agencies, can begin the rebuilding and restoration of damaged homes and infrastructure and pursue stalled development projects that will revive commerce and create new jobs," he said.

Good news

On the other hand, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said yesterday he hopes peace talks between the government and the MILF would resume after Salamat had publicly rejected terrorism.

"This is definitely good news for all of us, especially for us in the government who have been reaching out to the MILF so we could all go back to the negotiating table and sign the final peace agreement," he said.

Reyes said Salamat must accept the government’s offer of a "permanent ceasefire" as part of efforts to resume peace talks.

"This is a big step towards confidence-building measures between the two parties," he said. "We all hoped that Mr. Salamat will heed our call for a permanent ceasefire."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said yesterday the government would unlikely give in to Salamat’s call for a ceasefire within a week.

"The government is observing a high degree of self-restraint," he said. "That policy will continue."

Agreeing with Ople, Malaysian Ambassador Mohammad Taufik said the MILF should show more sincerity in returning to the negotiating table.

"It remains exactly whether the MILF is serious in it," he said. "But we should give them the benefit of having to prove themselves. Malaysia looks forward to having both parties back at the negotiating table."

Indonesian chargé d’affaires Alexander Laturiuw said the Philippines should analyze Salamat’s peace overtures as diplomacy always takes a chance for a peaceful solution.

"So this kind of statement, (you should) always take care and seriously analyze," he said. "But once again I will emphasize we are glad because diplomacy is always looking and working for peaceful solutions."

Reinforcing Mrs. Arroyo’s doubts on MILF peace efforts, soldiers killed two rebels and wounded at least three others yesterday at the border of Kabuntalan, Maguindanao and Cotabato City.

Hostilities erupted in Barangay Tayan when the rebels opened fire at Army troops searching for MILF leaders Ghadzali Jaafar and Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim.

The soldiers recovered from the slain rebels assorted ammunition, live B-40 anti-tank rockets, two shoulder-fired rocket launchers and improvised blasting devices for home-made bombs.

Since last week, troops from the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, and the 3rd, 57th, 47th and 37th Infantry Battalions have been scouring Kabuntalan, a known lair of kidnappers, following reports that Murad, Jaafar and their bodyguards had been sighted there.

Last Sunday, troops stumbled on an MILF bomb-making facility and recovered almost a thousand kilos of assorted blasting powders, ammonium nitrate and other combustible substances used in making powerful explosives.

Apart from the estimated P5 million worth of ingredients for bomb-making, the soldiers, led by 6th ID commander Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, also seized assorted bomb-making tools, including pipe wrenches, a plastic lamination machine, and special calibration devices for measuring chemical weight and volume.

Lt. Gen. Roy Kyamko, Armed Forces Southern Command chief, said the government has raised a P5-million reward each for the capture of Salamat, Murad, Jaafar and Salamat’s two lieutenants, Alim Abdulazis Mimbantas and MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu.

Warrants of arrest have been issued for the five rebels leaders in connection with the recent bombings in Southern Mindanao.

Murad and Jaafar had earlier eluded arrest during a military raid at their safehouses in Barangay Simuay in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao.

The two had reportedly escaped from the two-hectare compound of the MILF’s liaison office in Barangay Simuay just as soldiers had started surrounding the area.

In yesterday’s encounter in Barangay Tayan, the military had to use attack helicopters to pound rebel positions.

The rebels were reportedly seen bringing with them big cans and plastic bags containing "mysterious substances," which Army probers said could be ingredients for making bombs, as they fled towards Liguasan Marsh.

In a statement Sunday, Salamat said the MILF did not have any links with the Indonesian-based terror group Jemaah Islamiyah and publicly denounced terrorism.

Mrs. Arroyo has demanded that the MILF publicly renounce terrorism as a key government condition for resuming peace talks. With reports from Bong Fabe, Sammy Santos, Mike Frialde, Pia Lee-Brago, John Unson, Jaime Laude

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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