MANILA, JULY 13, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo vowed yesterday to hunt down the gunmen who killed 14 Marines amid concerns a full military offensive may damage efforts to rescue kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi and scuttle peace talks with a Muslim separatist group.

Short of implicating the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Mrs. Arroyo ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to launch a full offensive against those who beheaded 10 of the Marines on the trail of Bossi.

“The government will account for the perpetrators of this heinous attack in line with the rule of law, through the mechanisms of the peace process. The Armed Forces are duty-bound to hunt down and arrest those who treacherously killed and beheaded the soldiers,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

In a statement, Mrs. Arroyo told the MILF to account for the rebels who attacked and beheaded the 10 Marines Tuesday.

“If the Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces are culpable, then they must be accounted for by the ceasefire committees and be brought to justice. There can be no excuses or alibis for these acts of savagery,” she said.

The MILF, which has a three-year-old truce in place as it negotiates peace with the government, admitted its fighters attacked the Marines after they entered their territory without advance notice.

The MILF, however, denied that the Abu Sayyaf supported the MILF guerrillas during the clash, stressing the MILF had long cut links to the bandit group, which is known for mutilating its victims.

The soldiers under the 8th Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) were ambushed Tuesday in Tipo-Tipo town in Basilan as it followed a tip that Bossi, who was abducted from his parish in Zamboanga Sibugay on June 10, was being held in the area.

Ten of the slain marines were beheaded and mutilated, the military claimed. Nine other soldiers were wounded in the eight-hour clash.

The MILF denies it was behind the beheadings but claimed four of its fighters were also killed in the clash.

“That is not the work of the MILF. We do not allow mutilation of any part of the body,” MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said.

“We’re not proud of what happened,” Kabalu claimed, stressing the clash could have been prevented had the government informed the rebels before they went into the MILF stronghold.

Kabalu was at a loss as to why the Marines were beheaded, insisting the MILF did not engage in such practices. But he insisted the Abu Sayyaf were not involved in the battle.

Despite the MILF denials, government troops would pursue the attackers while the joint government-MILF ceasefire monitoring committee would look into the ambush, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

“You can be very sure our forces on the ground will take appropriate action,” Ermita said.

“The beheading was really outrageous but we will have to see how our negotiators handle that. It is not for me to dictate to them,” he said.

Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Aquilino Pimentel Jr. for their part, separately called for an all-out offensive against the attackers.

Enrile advised the government anew to conduct a no-nonsense campaign against the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf despite the ongoing peace efforts.

Pimentel, on the other hand, said the government should go after those who beheaded the Marines.

Pimentel also blamed the local officials in Basilan for allowing the proliferation of extremist groups in their area.

‘Flimsy reason’

Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan accused the MILF of violating the 2003 ceasefire agreement, saying the joint ceasefire committee “must determine if the MILF participated in the mutilation of our colleagues.”

“The high number of casualties is best explained in the manner they were attacked; it was very treacherous,” he said. “Ambush is a difficult situation where you can hardly react to counter the attack.”

Col. Ramiro Alivio, 1st Marine Brigade commander, dismissed the claims of non-coordination with the MILF as a “flimsy reason” to justify the ambush.

“If you were running against the criminals do you always have to alert them (MILF)?” Alivio said.

He said the mutilation of the bodies of the dead soldiers indicated the Abu Sayyaf was involved in the skirmish.

Alivio added the Marines suffered 14 casualties and nine wounded during the encounter.

Marine Commandant Maj. Gen. Nelson Allaga confirmed that the soldiers were beheaded and mutilated.

He said the survivors of the ambush narrated how they were able to extricate themselves from the area during the seven-hour gunbattle with the increasing number of rebel forces.

One of the soldiers, who asked not to be named, claimed four of their comrades died on the spot after the initial heavy volley of gunfire.

He said the 10 Marines who were earlier reported missing had been trapped by heavy gunfire coming from the rebel forces.

“Some of them were killed and the rest were wounded and could have been alive but were finished off and beheaded,” the Marine said.

He said they tried to locate their comrades through text messages.

A response came and it said: “Sorry wala na yong mga buddy nínyo (Sorry, but your buddies are already dead),” the Marine recounted.

When the remains of their fallen comrades were retrieved, he said they were all beheaded and some of them were mutilated.

Notwithstanding the setback, Allaga advised the grieving Marines to stay focused on their mission.

He also said that the ambush was in violation of the truce with the MILF.

For his part, Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said it is a natural tendency for soldiers to get angry over the loss of their comrades.

“We would like to express our grief over the loss of 14 Marines and we certainly sympathize with their families. With the death of 14, 10 of whom were beheaded, there is a natural tendency to be angered by the dastardly act but our soldiers are keeping their cool,” Esperon said.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) said they will extend support to the families of the 14 soldiers.

“The President was greatly saddened by the tragedy that befell these men and her heart goes out to the families they left behind,” said Pagcor chairman Efraim Genuino.

The more reason

Despite the incident, Esperon said the Armed Forces will still allow the peace negotiations with the MILF, but stressed that those behind the beheadings should be identified and punished.

Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Jesus Dureza said the government and the MILF are now in the process of investigating the incident.

Dureza said the International Monitoring Team (IMT) led by Malaysia is also taking action.

“We have installed mechanisms and ceasefire to address situations like this. But I condemn the beheading and mutilation which is barbaric, inhuman,” Dureza said.

Dureza acknowledged the attack has affected the peace process “at least immediately.”

“The situation is hot right now. We have to cool things down for the moment,” he said.

Government chief peace negotiator Rodolfo Garcia said the incident has made the government more determined to seek a final peace agreement with the MILF.

Garcia described the beheadings and mutilations as “very terrible, very unfortunate.” He said the incident gave the government more reason to push through with its peace efforts with the MILF.

“All the more that we should really work for a final peace agreement because it is the only way to avoid such incidents. Because to do otherwise would just let these things continue and who else would suffer but the people of Mindanao,” he said.

Garcia warned withdrawal of the peace negotiations with the MILF because of the incident would have dire political consequences.

Garcia stressed the need to investigate the incident and identify those behind the beheadings.

He said there had been a slew of information pointing to the group behind the massacre but warned against jumping to conclusions.

Despite the MILF’s admission that they were behind the attack, Garcia said it does not follow they carried out the beheadings.

“So at the moment, I really could not pinpoint yet who did the beheadings,” Garcia said.

“We have to investigate very, very thoroughly and get to the bottom of things,” he added.

Garcia, a retired general, said his experience as military commander in Mindanao revealed the MILF never carried out beheadings in their armed struggle for independence.

“The MILF does not engage in beheading. Only the Abu Sayyaf does the beheading because of their interpretation of the tenets of the Koran,” Garcia said.

Muslim clerics also condemned the beheading of the 10 Marines, branding it as a “high form of Satanism.”

Ustadz Esmael Ebrahim, senior associate of the Philippine Assembly of Darul Iftah, explained Islam prohibits the slaughter of any dead animal, more so of their enemies.

Two preachers, one from Tipo-Tipo and the other from Lamitan, both in Basilan, claimed the attackers even chanted the takbir (praise) “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great) as they beheaded the 10 soldiers using bakoko and pira, traditional bladed weapons of the Yakan tribe which are also used for farming.

The hunt for Bossi

Shortly after President Arroyo called for the manhunt, Esperon announced the deployment of another battalion of soldiers to Basilan to pursue the attackers.

He said the additional troops will come from units in Sulu and will be airlifted to Basilan to speed up their deployment.

There were no reports of new fighting, Esperon said, and no indications that the MILF is blocking efforts to hunt the attackers and continue the search for Bossi.

Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo said they would continue their hunt for Bossi in Basilan island despite the potential for more clashes with the MILF.

“We will continue the search for Bossi. There is a high probability that the kidnapped priest was brought to Basilan,” he said. – With Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude, Edith Regalado, John Unson, Christina Mendez, AFP, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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