APRIL 18, 2007 (STAR) By Marvin Sy And Jaime Laude - Malacañang is giving full support to the military offensive against renegade Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces in Sulu, which entered its fourth day of fierce fighting yesterday.

While the government acknowledges the appeal of the 47-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to disengage forces, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said there must be an assurance against further attacks from the renegade forces.

"We acknowledge the call of the OIC for peace in Sulu and we have consistently worked with international allies and stakeholders toward this end," Bunye said.

"But even the OIC would agree that any government will have to deal firmly with any and all depredations against the community such as that staged by the wayward armed group of Habier Malik," he added.

Bunye stressed the government must maintain the rule of law in Jolo through aggressive law enforcement to secure the safety of civilians.

"We cannot have peace hostaged to the victims of the lawless," Bunye said.

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urged both sides to abide by the provisions of a 1996 peace accord, which the OIC helped broker, and resume negotiations to fully implement it.

Ihsanoglu will consult with the two sides about the creation of "a small military monitoring mission," which would help prevent anymore violence, according to an OIC statement.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also appealed to the government to take the initiative to stop the hostilities.

Pimentel warned the fighting may spread to more areas in Mindanao if the government will not take the initiative to effect a ceasefire.

"An escalation of hostilities in Sulu should be avoided at all costs because of the terrible consequences it will bring. We should not allow more people to lose their lives and limbs. We should prevent the dislocation of the civilian population," Pimentel said.

Officials, however, stressed the recent military assaults were directed against MNLF commander Habier Malik and his men, and not against the main group, and government forces would continue to hunt him down to bring him to justice.

"Malik is being made to answer for the consequences of his acts as a law violator and not a member of the MNLF," Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis said the military action is not against the MNLF.

"We have a peace accord with them and that stays," he said.

The OIC, which brokered the 1996 deal, is trying to salvage the agreement.

It has called a meeting with government officials and the MNLF in Saudi Arabia in July.

But both sides have ignored OIC calls to end the clashes.

‘True colors’

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon stressed Malik and his forces could go unpunished. "We don’t want that to happen," he stressed.

Malik is suspected of providing sanctuary to the Abu Sayyaf bandits and Indonesian terror suspects who have been on the run from the massive government offensive that started in August.

"We’re still running after him for these totally unprovoked attacks that have hurt civilians," Esperon said.

Esperon claimed Malik is "living up to his true colors" of coddling the Abu Sayyaf and the two Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants Umar Patek and Dulmatin who are both wanted for the 2002 Bali bombings.

Esperon stressed the offensive is against Malik and his forces, not on the mainstream MNLF.

"This is not an operation against the MNLF, this is against Habier Malik, so that he will be made to answer for his criminal liabilities," he said.

"Malik has to be held accountable. It will be very hard for us to just leave it that way," he said.

Anti-terror Task Force Comet chief Maj. Gen. Ruben Rafael claimed Malik and his forces have merged with the Abu Sayyaf bandits following the attacks.

"The situation remained intense as the troops are meeting resistance from the followers of Malik," Rafael said.

AFP information chief Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said Army commandos are fanning out into the jungles of Jolo to hunt the renegade MNLF guerrillas after three days of pitched battle.

"Our troops were now pursuing a separate group of MNLF rebels in another part of the island," Bacarro said.

Seventeen rebels, three soldiers and one civilian have been killed since Malik and his renegade MNLF forces fired mortars at Marines on Friday night, triggering fierce retaliation by the military, which dropped 250-pound bombs on his base.

The military has already suffered three killed and 47 wounded in the clashes.

Fighting intensified yesterday at the outskirts of Bitan-ag village, which left a rebel killed and another captured, according to the military.

Last Monday, Marines encountered the renegade MNLF forces, killing a trooper and leaving a dozen wounded.

Nearly 8,500 families have fled the fighting and thousands crammed into schools and gymnasiums in downtown Jolo, relying on food rations from disaster agencies.

The mass evacuations are a bitter development for conflict-scarred residents, who had hoped Jolo was becoming a more stable place after a long-running military campaign to rid the island of scores of Islamic militants.

"I hope the two sides will come to their senses and stop this madness," said MNLF foreign relations chairman Parouk Hussin.

"This would definitely jeopardize all our efforts to restore peace on Jolo and put to waste the gains of the peace process," Hussin said.

Another senior MNLF official, Central Committee chief political coordinator Haji Winnie Hajirol, claimed the four days of fighting left 34 government troops and four MNLF fighters killed.

Hajirol said 14 soldiers were killed in the fighting in Buansa, Indanan while 20 were killed in an encounter in Tayungan, Looc.

Hajirol’s claims could not be immediately verified. He said communication between MNLF ground commanders had been cut off.

Lost command

Malacañang officials, on the other hand, blamed the lack of clear leadership in the MNLF for complicating efforts to end the conflict peacefully.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales and Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process Jesus Dureza in separate interviews said the MNLF leadership must exercise control over Malik.

"We are calling on the leadership of the MNLF to make a decisive and appropriate move on Malik," Dureza said.

He said Malik has "placed himself out of the ambit of the peace agreement" in leading the Friday attack.

Dureza said there is no need to call for a ceasefire, since there is a peace agreement in place that made the cessation of hostilities permanent.

When asked of reports of power struggle within the MNLF, Dureza replied: "That is something internal to them."

There are reports that the MNLF’s Council of 15, which held the reins of the group when MNLF founder Nur Misuari was jailed for rebellion in 2001, already turned over the leadership to him recently.

But there are some issues that need to be resolved, among them Misuari’s decision against appointing any member of the council to any post in the MNLF.

Malik, for his part, is closely identified with Misuari, who remains under detention for rebellion but is running for governor of Sulu. – With Paolo Romero, Roel Pareño, Christina Mendez, Pia Lee- Brago, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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