[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo and Vice President Noli de Castro pay tribute to the 14 Marines killed in action in Basilan during solemn ceremonies at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City yesterday.]

MANILA, JULY 16, 2007 (STAR) By Marvin Sy - A tribute befitting heroes was given to the 14 Marines killed by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas in Basilan last Tuesday as their remains arrived in Manila from Zamboanga City.

President Arroyo led the ceremony at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City yesterday where the remains of the slain soldiers — 10 of whom were beheaded and mutilated — were flown in from Zamboanga City.

The sky was overcast while a drizzle fell on the grieving relatives of the slain Marines.

“This is indeed a day of sorrow for the whole Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), but at the same time, we are not losing sight of the missions that we have to perform,” AFP chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told the mourners.

Esperon called on the MILF to identify the guerrillas involved in the attack.

“We have given orders to pursue the perpetrators. We expect the MILF to assist and at the most ferret out and bring to us the perpetrators since they have admitted that the ambush was perpetrated by their members in Basilan,” Esperon said.

Honor guards rendered their salute and the Air Force band played taps as the caskets of the 14 Marines were carried by pallbearers.

As part of the tribute, the 14 were conferred posthumous promotions.

The 14 were Staff Sgts. Noel Bautista, Bernard Abes; Sgts. Rey Callueng, Gerardo Licup and Cayetano Simbajon, Privates First Class Russel Panaga, Jhonard Alianza, Emilio Lachica, Reuben Doronio Jr., Elizar Seminiano, Arjorin Eleazar, Wilfredo Lamban, Emmanuel Beup and Freddie Palma.

The soldiers were part of contingent searching for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi, following a tip-off that the priest was being held in an area in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.

The 14 Marines were killed and 10 were later beheaded by gunmen suspected to be Abu Sayyaf bandits and MILF guerrillas joining forces.

The MILF admitted staging the attack but denied beheading 10 of the Marines.

The MILF claimed they were forced to counter-attack after the Marines entered their territory without any permit.

President Arroyo said the government remains committed to forging peace with the MILF but asserted those responsible for the killing of the 14 Marines must be brought to justice.

“We will run after those who killed our Marines but we will not run away from the peace talks,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President said the government’s resolve in forging a peace pact with the MILF is matched by the desire to “see the killers (of the Marines) punished.

“We will not allow those who committed barbaric acts to hide under the negotiating table. Only principled warriors deserve a seat on it,” she said.

This developed as the military disclosed yesterday that they are closing in on the gunmen who ambushed and killed 14 Marines.

“We have already identified some of the perpetrators. We are consolidating the offensive against the perpetrators,” said Rear Admiral Emilio Marayag, head of naval forces including of Marines in the area.

“We have sufficient forces to run after those behind the attack,” he said.

Show good faith

The military has poured hundreds of Marines into the area in the wake of the killings and intensified its search for Bossi, kidnapped from his parish in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay on June 10.

The 1st Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) from Sulu have arrived yesterday in Maluso, Basilan and augmented the troops who are already preparing for the full scale assault.

Some of the troops who came arrived for the assault even shaved their heads in sympathy for the death of their comrades. “We are going to implement the order of the President to hunt down the murderers,” Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo said.

He said the full-scale assault will be more on police action against those involved in the ambush last July 10.

Cedo confirmed the MILF was given one week to identify those involved in the beheadings.

The additional troop deployment came after President Arroyo ordered the AFP to “hunt down and arrest” the militants behind the killing of the 14 Marines.

The MILF remained defiant yesterday over the attack, saying they would not return weapons they had seized from the dead men.

MILF peace negotiator Mohaqer Iqbal said the Marines had violated a ceasefire by entering MILF territory without first gaining clearance.

“We will not (return them.) This is a legitimate encounter after the other (side) violated the ceasefire,” he said.

The MILF, which has a truce in place as it negotiates peace with the government, admits taking part in the ambush but not the beheadings.

Iqbal said the ambush would not affect the peace talks unless the government attacked MILF positions on Basilan.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), meanwhile, urged the government to investigate the ambush first before taking any punitive action.

Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema, MNLF secretary-general, claimed the ambush could be in retaliation over the killing of Matarul Hakim Alkanul, an imam (Muslim priest) in a village near the site of the encounter.

“The MNLF is interested in the investigation because the slain preacher is an organic member of the MNLF. We have learned from our followers in Basilan that many of ambushers were relatives of the victim,” Sema said.

The MNLF signed a peace pact with on Sept. 2, 1996, after waging a bloody secessionist war in the south that lasted for 30 years and claimed the lives of some 200,000 combatants from both sides as well as civilians.

“It’s good for the government and MILF’s ceasefire committees to really investigate first before the military starts to pounce on the guerrillas involved in the ambush of the Marines,” Sema said.

Sema claimed relatives of Alkanul, more popularly known as Imam Alkanul, believed the military was behind the killing.

Alkanul was killed with his hands and feet tied before his body was riddled with bullets, hours before the ambush in Tipo-Tipo.

Sema claimed the killing of Alkanul could have precipitated the ambush of the Marines.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, on the other hand, said members of the joint Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) have conducted an initial investigation on the incident and are expected to submit their findings next week to the government and MILF panels.

“They have interviewing ordinary people, local leaders, the police and the military in the municipality where the incident happened,” Dureza said.

Dureza maintained confidence that the incident will not derail the peace talks between the government and the MILF.

For his part, Marine Commandant Maj. Gen. Nelson Allaga vowed their units, which have been deployed in Albarka and Tipo-Tipo towns, will not retaliate for the brutal ambush of their comrades.

“We are professional soldiers. We’re not savage warriors. No retaliations,” Allaga said. -With John Unson, Roel Pareno, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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