MANILA, December 26, 2005
 (STAR) By Paolo Romero And John Unson - Malacañang yesterday expressed alarm over the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s recruitment activities and the expansion of MILF-held areas in Mindanao, as reported by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The Palace has directed government peace negotiators to discuss the two matters with MILF leaders and international monitors.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Presidential Adviser for Mindanao Affairs Jesus Dureza and chief government negotiator Silvestre Afable Jr., in separate interviews, insisted that the reports have yet to be verified.

"Of course we are concerned about these reports of recruitment," Ermita said in a telephone interview. "But of course we have to verify (these reports). I’m sure that this matter of the MILF recruitment and expansion would be raised by our peace negotiators led by Secretary Yoyong (Afable)."

"We cannot allow these things to happen if they are true," Ermita added.

Armed Forces Southern Command (Southcom) chief Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan said the other day the military has been receiving persistent reports that the MILF has been recruiting more guerrillas and encroaching on rebel-free neutral areas while engaging in peace talks with the government.

MILF leaders, however, have dismissed Adan’s allegations. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu claimed Adan issued the statement in order to get the attention of Malacañang for a possible government posting upon his retirement next year.

Many local officials in Mindanao have also expressed surprise over Adan’s statements, saying it was not the case in the barrios. The local government officials in areas close to identified MILF territories went as far as to say that highways that were once dangerous are now safe to travel on "24 hours a day."

Even members of the ceasefire committee said they cannot understand why Adan insists that the MILF is recruiting fighters.

Afable and Dureza said the authorities, the Joint Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and the international monitoring team (IMT) from several countries have been informed of the reports and they said the matter is not worrisome. Dureza also heads the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCO).

"What we are trying to determine is whether this reported recruitment would violate ceasefire agreements and the peace process," Dureza said, "or (is meant to) just expand their membership to include relatives and families to ensure that they become beneficiaries of the peace dividends once a final peace agreement is signed."

Dureza said he is aware of only one MILF recruitment activity in South Cotabato, adding that the matter was settled immediately after the rebels pulled out of the area when local officials complained.

He also said the MILF has been sincere in its participation in the peace talks and has been abiding by the interim ceasefire agreements — a fact that even IMT members from Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Libya attested to.

Since the interim ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002, armed encounters between the military and the MILF were reduced to nearly zero and the MILF has been helping police and military personnel hunt down kidnappers and terrorists.

Afable said the reports would be taken up at the panel level during the resumption of formal peace talks next year. He also refused to make any further comments on the matter until he sees the official CCCH findings.

"What I know for a fact is that the MILF is recruiting young men and women into its Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) for peace and development training," Afable said.

"I support this effort of the BDA because I believe every young recruit for peace and development is one less potential recruit for the extremist group," Afable said.

According to Dureza, the BDA has proven its worth by implementing European Union-funded projects with MEDCO in Lanao del Norte. He said the projects include providing farm implements, shelters and capacity-building for the peace process.

He also said the BDA, under the recommendations of foreign donor agencies, will be the implementing agency of development projects once a peace accord is signed.

The MILF is fully aware that, once a final peace agreement is signed, development aid from the United States, EU and Australia will pour into Mindanao.

Government and MILF war tacticians expressed optimism that more peaceful days will come in 2006 to areas in Mindanao covered by the ceasefire agreement between MILF rebels and the military.

Peace talks between the government and the MILF began on Jan. 7, 1997, but there were flashpoint areas where soldiers and rebels only began being cordial to one another two years ago — after mechanisms designed to strengthen the ceasefire were set up.

The joint ceasefire committee — through the CCCH and its enforcement arm, the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AH-JAG) — has succeeded over the past few months in promptly working out the amicable settlement of dozens of territorial disputes between rebel and military forces.

The AH-JAG even succeeded in rescuing two kidnapping victims this year: Businessperson Zuela Cansi and four-year-old Ralph Ashley Alcular.

Sammy Al-Mansur Gambar, who heads the MILF’s armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, said battle-hardened separatist rebels and soldiers have even engaged in "emotional basketball and volleyball" games during barangay fiestas and other events in the mixed Christian and Muslim communities.

These things indicate that "peace, indeed, can be easily achieved through peaceful dialogues," Gambar said, adding that "cooperation and vigilance" are important in these ceasefire areas.

Kabalu said one factor why the MILF is certain of more peaceful days ahead in 2006 is the active involvement of governors Emmanuel Piñol of North Cotabato and Datu Andal Ampatuan of Maguindanao in low-level peace initiatives in their provinces.

As part of his own efforts at diplomacy, Piñol brought Kabalu and selected officials of the MILF to the opening ceremonies of the 23rd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), which the Philippines hosted.

"Our brother Gov. Piñol was known in the past for his hard-line, iron-fisted policy in dealing with the MILF in the past," Kabalu said. Now, Piñol "has taken major strides in reaching out to MILF forces in his province and, as a result, there is peace now in North Cotabato."

Ampatuan’s son, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, said during his first state of the region address on Nov. 14 that he is ready to relinquish his post if a final peace pact between the government and the MILF calls for him to do so.

"I may not be a member of either the MILF or the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but I’m a member of Mindanao’s Moro community, the sector whose welfare and socio-economic growth both fronts continue to fight for," the younger Ampatuan said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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