FEBRUARY 5, 2007 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - A Marine general and a Palace official held with more than a dozen others by a Muslim rebel group loyal to Nur Misuari stepped out of the rebel camp in Panamao, Sulu yesterday, insisting that they merely "returned’’ from a peace mission and were not hostages.

The group of Marine Maj. Gen. Mohamad Ben Dolorfino and Undersecretary Ramon Santos of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process left the rebel camp in the afternoon and spent about an hour at a Marine base in Lake Seit before being flown by helicopter to the headquarters of the 104th brigade and the Joint Task Force Comet at Camp Bautista in Busbus, Jolo.

It was the Misuari Breakaway Group of the Moro National Liberation Front which held them for two days to press for the setting of a definite schedule for a tripartite meeting among the MNLF, the government and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Saudi Arabia.

The rebel group, led by Habier Malik and Khaid Ajibun, also want to discuss at the meeting the recent MNLF "misencounter" with government troops in Patikul, Sulu, which claimed the lives of eight rebels and three soldiers.

"We are happy that the crisis is over," Dolorfino said, smiling broadly before a throng of government officials and journalists after alighting from a helicopter at the Jolo army camp.

"They (rebels) are now happy. They have received an assurance from the OIC that a tripartite meeting – between the MNLF, the OIC and the government – will be held in March,’’ Dolorfino said over DzBB.

Dolorfino said the OIC had sent an official letter setting tentative dates for March 17 and 18. "Malik has been asking for the meeting for a long time,’’ Dolorfino said.

The military reiterated that no hostage-taking took place.

"They used AFP vehicles in proceeding to the headquarters of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11 in Lake Seit also in Panamao, and arrived there at 3:50 pm," AFP spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said.

Malik said Dolorfino’s group was invited to the rebel camp for some discussions on the tripartite meeting but was asked to stay when it made no commitment on the holding of the meeting.

It is not clear what message the MNLF will convey to the OIC in March, but the tripartite meetings had previously been used by the MNLF to air their complaints over provisions of the peace accord they claimed had not been met.

At Malacañang, Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the government acknowledged that "there are outstanding issues with the MNLF that have to be resolved under the principles of continuity and comprehensiveness of the peace process’’ but stressed that there are no "quick fixes’’ to the socio-economic problems in Mindanao.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Misuari cannot "wash his hands of’’ the incident which he described as an offshoot of the detained Muslim leader’s effort to get himself out of prison and consolidate his power.

"If he (Misuari) has an agenda– he told us he is denying his role in the recent activity – be that as it may, if he is really the leader (of the MNLF), he must show the government that he is such. If he is really the leader, then this should not have happened,’’ Ermita told The STAR in a telephone interview.

"I’m not blaming him. Remember he wants to claim leadership of the MNLF. All I’m saying he must exercise his leadership if he is representing MNLF,’’ he said.

Ermita said it Misuari who was actually pining for a tripartite meeting — with himself as the MNLF representative.

"He (Misuari) wants to represent the MNLF in the meeting but legally he cannot be given that privilege because he’s a prisoner or under detention under a very serious charge,’’ Ermita said, adding that Malik’s move "could be a form of leverage to force the government to give in to whatever (Misuari) wants.’’

Ermita said the OIC body dealing with the MNLF is the Committee of Eight headed by Indonesia. He said he was able to briefly speak with Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda, who assured him that the coming tripartite meeting will come out "positively for both sides.’’

For his part, Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza told The STAR that a flurry of phone calls to OIC officials and ambassadors that lasted until Saturday helped secure the release of Dolorfino’s team.

He said he was able to convince OIC Secretary General Seyed Kasim Al-Masry to assure Malik by phone that the tripartite meeting would push through. This was followed by a fax confirmation from Al-Masry to Dureza’s office, which sent it again by fax to the Red Cross office in Sulu. The fax message was hand carried to Malik yesterday morning by an emissary.

Dureza also said that to prevent another misencounter, the military ceased all operations in Sulu including the Oplan Ultimatum against the Abu Sayyaf.

On the military’s insistence that no hostage-taking took place, Dureza said he would still have to find it out. "Some are saying they’re were not hostage but merely hosted. But I will personally hear from them,’’ he said.

But Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said the incident could be considered illegal detention.

"We don’t know whether they were forced or coerced to stay or whether they were just prevailed upon to stay but the moment you are prevented from moving then that is already illegal detention,’’ Gonzalez said.

When asked whether the government officials could he considered as hostages, he said: "Well, that’s a matter of semantics already.’’

"When you go in a place like that and you are not allowed to leave, then there is still something there. But let’s wait for the full report. But I don’t look at this well because any kind of restraint is not good, especially when you have top officials there,’’ he said.

The government and the MNLF signed a peace accord in 1996, officially ending decades-old hostilities fueled by the rebel group’s secessionist bid and the government’s perceived disregard for the plight of Muslims in Mindanao.

As part of the peace settlement, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was established with top MNLF leaders occupying key posts.

Later, Misuari and some MNLF officials complained that many of the conditions of the peace agreement remained unfulfilled and there had been incidents of fighting between government forces and MNLF commanders.

The animosity between the government and the MNLF erupted into an open confrontation in 2001 when Misuari’s followers attacked the airport and the Army headquarters in Jolo leaving scores dead. He fled to Malaysia but was later captured and sent back to face rebellion charges. He was detained at Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa. Laguna and was later moved to a residential house in New Manila in Quezon City.

The government is currently engaged in separate peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from the MNLF in 1978 and was excluded from the 1996 accord. - With Paolo Romero, Roel Pareño, AFP and AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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