, JULY 26, 2007 (STAR) Malacañang yesterday challenged the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to show that it is sincere in forging peace with the government by turning over its members who ambushed and killed 14 Marines in Basilan two weeks ago.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales in separate interviews also said the government will not engage in an all-out offensive against MILF forces in the province, but is determined in apprehending those responsible for the ambush, with or without the help of the separatist group.

Ermita said the government has furnished the MILF leadership with the list of names of those who allegedly participated in the attack even if they may not all be members of the group.

“By providing them (MILF) with the list (of suspects), we will know if the MILF will help us in accounting for them,” Ermita said.

“It is better if we exchange lists so the MILF can show their sincerity to help in accounting for those who did that dastardly massacre of our soldiers because that’s beyond reason… even in normal wars there should be no mutilation of those killed,” he added.

He said part of the ongoing peace talks are bodies such as the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group to sustain the negotiations and protect the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the two sides.

Under the ceasefire agreement, the MILF is not supposed to give sanctuary to suspected terror and kidnap for ransom groups in their enclaves.

“This is a test for them (MILF) because they are the ones talking to the government. They are signatory to the ceasefire. So this is a test as to whether they can live up to their commitment,” he said.

He said while the 60-man IMT, composed of representatives from Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Libya, does not have direct jurisdiction over Basilan, the government continues to coordinate with it to help resolve the situation.

MILF imploring foreign intercession

Behind the saber rattling of the MILF are unseen maneuvers imploring the intercession of the foreign donor community on the brewing crisis in the southern island of Basilan.

Thousands of Marine combatants and militiamen are now positioned in strategic areas in Basilan, awaiting order to strike at the MILF ambushers that beheaded 10 of the 14 Marines killed in a July 10 encounter in Albarka town in the province.

The Notre Dame Broadcasting Corp. (NDBC) here has quoted MILF chief negotiator Muhaquer Iqbal as saying that they have written offices in Metro Manila of foreign donors involved in various projects in the South, insinuating that any outbreak of hostilities in Basilan will surely affect their costly projects in Mindanao.

Iqbal has told NDBC, owned by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate congregation, that their chieftain, Al-Haj Murad, relayed the other day to the embassies of the United States, Canada and Japan that launching punitive attacks against guerrilla forces in Basilan will also imperil the 10-year-old peace talks between the government and the front.

The oft-shaken peace overture between the government and the MILF began Jan. 7, 1997, but gained momentum only in 2003 with the participation of Malaysia as “third party negotiator.”

Military planners in Central Mindanao, some of them involved in joint low-level peace initiatives with MILF field commanders, said Murad’s correspondence with the foreign funding agencies sponsoring socio-economic projects in Mindanao could be aimed at convincing the international community to help forestall an impending military offensive against its forces in Basilan.

Many foreign donors have project tie-ups – underscored in memoranda of understanding (MOU) – with the MILF, benefiting impoverished communities in areas covered by the ceasefire.

One of these projects is the “Days of Peace,” where the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the MILF’s central committee are cooperating in the immunization of Muslim children in remote areas in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Iqbal said Murad has explicitly stated in his letters, sent by both fax and e-mail, that the “primacy of the peace process” can be overtaken outright by a conflict in Basilan, where MILF guerrillas and the Marines face a showdown, ready to shoot at each other at the slightest provocation.

“A chain reaction is likely to happen,” Iqbal told NDBC, apparently referring to their threats of a spillover of hostilities in areas outside of Basilan if hostilities there erupt.

MNLF will remain in camps

Meanwhile, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) assured its forces will remain in their camps in Basilan in the event of a shooting war between the military and the MILF on the island province.

“We have a peace agreement with the government. Our forces there religiously adhere to the tenets of that accord,” Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema, MNLF’s secretary-general, told The STAR via mobile phone.

However, Sema said he and Basilan Assemblyman Hatimil Hassan, a member of the 24-seat Regional Assembly in the ARMM, are worried that MNLF members might get trapped in crossfire.

Hassan said many of those displaced by the July 10 encounter between the MILF and the Marines in Albarka, Basilan are members of the MNLF, which signed a peace pact with government on Sept. 2, 1996.

“If the MNLF will have its way, it wants the crisis in Basilan resolved peacefully, in the spirit of mutual cooperation, to preserve the gains of the GRP-MILF peace negotiations,” Sema said.

Sema appealed to the Armed Forces to closely coordinate with MNLF leaders in Basilan if it launches punitive strikes against those behind the July 10 ambush of the Marines in Albarka to prevent soldiers from figuring in any mistaken encounter with their followers.

“We can guarantee the Armed Forces and Malacañang that MNLF members in Basilan will just monitor the situation in their camps in case fighting takes place and will never join in the fighting unless their communities are attacked,” Sema said.

Sema said the MNLF is in favor of the conduct first of an independent probe before punitive actions against the culprits are taken.

“Only by way of conducting an independent probe can the military and the MILF determine the real circumstances surrounding that bloody incident,” Sema said.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, whose office is initiating means of addressing peacefully the security problem now besetting Basilan, has urged the AFP and the MILF to refrain from issuing provocative statements on the issue while investigations are still underway.

“Issuing hostile comments about the July 10 incident is just like pouring aviation fuel on a very small fire which we are trying to extinguish promptly,” Dureza said.

Dureza said “inflammatory statements” regarding the situation in Basilan are major irritants that can only worsen the security problems in the province.

DSWD prepares for massive evacuation

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has started sending tents and food to the ARMM in preparation for a massive evacuation of residents from Basilan in anticipation of an imminent clash between government forces and the MILF.

“I am sending 100 tents initially. We have 1,000 food packs and 1,000 clothing packs ready in Region 9 and we will be sending more to meet whatever requirements there will be,” DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral told The STAR.

Cabral also said she had ordered the department’s office in ARMM to locate a safe area where evacuation centers can be put up.

She said the agency has also started coordinating with local government officials in ARMM for the relief operation in Basilan.

Cabral also assured that the government has sufficient funds to finance the relief operation for the soon-to-be displaced residents.

According to reports, at least 1,000 families have evacuated from Barangay Guinanta in Albarka.

Thousands of residents from other barangays, including Linuan, Macalang, Danapah, Kailih and Cambug, have also left their homes and started building temporary huts in nearby towns, particularly Lamitan.

Temporary evacuation centers have already been put up in nearby Tipo-Tipo municipality and other areas in the province.

The villagers left their homes after the military poured troops into Basilan province.

However, the thousands of Marines now in the island province are still holding their punches against the MILF forces, who in turn have vowed to fight till death if attacked.

“We don’t want to telegraph our punches,” AFP Public Information Office (PIO) chief Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said yesterday, as he declined to give an update on the ongoing Basilan operation.

Appeal for maximum restraint

Malaysia’s defense minister has appealed to both the military and the MILF to exercise maximum restraint in handling the security crisis in Basilan.

Gen. Tan Seri Dato’ Seri Abdul Asiz Haji Zainal arrived in Manila Tuesday and held a brief dialogue with Brig. Edgardo Gurrea, chairman of the government’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), his MILF counterpart, Von Al-Haq, and Malaysian Army Gen. Ismail Khan of the IMT.

Zainal’s position in the Malaysian Royal Armed Forces (MRAF) is equivalent to that of Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Gurrea declined to reveal the details of their dialogue with Zainal, saying he arrived at the venue late.

Al-Haq said Zainal asked him to extend to the MILF’s chairman, Al-Haj Murad, his appeal for the MILF “not to sacrifice” the entire organization for a few who may have done wrong.

“I think what the General meant was that if the investigation should show that some members of our group were involved in the beheading, then the MILF should not sacrifice the whole organization for them,” Al-Haq told reporters via mobile phone.

An informed source said Zainal also asked Gurrea to relay to the military forces in Basilan his appeal for them and for the MILF to allow investigators first to document the real circumstances of the July 10 encounter between the Marines and local guerrilla forces, made sensational by the ambushers’ decapitation of 10 of the 14 soldiers killed in the attack.

AFP and PNP on heightened alert

Both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police are on high alert for possible bombings and similar attacks in key points in Mindanao as the military is poised to launch an assault against the MILF separatist guerrillas.

“A spillover of what could happen in Basilan is possible in mainland Mindanao. The bombings and similar attacks could be to divert the attention from Basilan to the mainland,” Southern Mindanao regional police commander Chief Superintendent Andres Caro II said.

Caro said some elements of the MILF might carry out bombing attacks in certain parts of Mindanao if the military would exert more pressure on their members in Basilan.

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who chairs the Southern Mindanao Regional Peace and Order Council, also immediately convened the joint regional intelligence and investigation task force in Davao to work and ensure that the area would not be affected by any spillover of what could happen in Basilan.

“We just have to make sure that there would be no bombings,” Duterte said.

Residents in Southern Mindanao have also been cautioned about bomb threats and told to be extra vigilant on suspicious movements of certain individuals who could possibly be tasked to carry out the bombings.

This developed as authorities also put in place necessary measures to secure vital power installations all over the province.

“We have to secure these vital installations to prevent any sabotage that could affect the distribution of power in Mindanao,” Armed Forces Eastern Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Obaniana said.

In her State of the Nation Address Monday, President Arroyo stressed that the problem in Mindanao is not power generation but terrorists attacking power lines.

“We have to deal with the problem of terrorists targeting power transmission lines,” Mrs. Arroyo said.

Mindanao experienced power sabotage in 2003 when several transmission lines of the National Transmission Corp. (Transco) in the Cotabato-General Santos area were simultaneously bombed, putting the entire island in a total blackout.

Aside from the MILF, the National Democratic Front-New People’s Army also warned of toppling power lines of Transco after the Human Security Act took effect last July 15.

Rogue elements of the MILF separatist rebel group were said to be behind last week’s bombing of Structure 38 Transco steel tower in Kidapawan City.

“We do not want a repeat of the Kidapawan incident. It is important that we make sure that we secure these all-important power lines and not cripple the continued supply of power in the south,” Obaniana said.

Workers have yet to fully restore the Structure 38 steel tower that supplies the power requirements of most parts of North Cotabato.

Government forces have reportedly been repositioned in such a way that they are able to protect the transmission lines.

Mindanao has been heavily dependent on hydroelectric power sourced from the Agus I and II power plants in Iligan City.

DOJ creates team of prosecutors

The Department of Justice yesterday ordered the creation of a team of prosecutors tasked to pursue the cases of murder, frustrated murder, and attempted murder against MILF commanders Hassan Ansami alias Luksaw and Suhid Limaya alias Hud and about 500 unidentified fighters in connection with the July 10 ambush.

Secretary Raul Gonzalez appointed Zamboanga City Prosecutor Ricardo Cabaron to head the team. Assisting Cabaron will be Assistant City Prosecutor Annie Marie Ledesma, State Prosecutor Dennis Araojo and Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera of the DOJ’s Anti-Terrorism and National Security Cases Task Force.

The DOJ formed the prosecuting team in response to a recommendation of Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, deputy commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom).

Sabban, in his letter to the DOJ, recommended the filing of cases against the two MILF commanders and their followers.

“We are quite apprehensive that he (prosecutor) might be intimidated by the suspects as they wield influence in that area. We do not question the competence and integrity of the prosecutor of the DOJ in the area, nonetheless, it would be safer if a prosecutor from the DOJ or nearest to the province of Basilan is tapped so we can be assured of impartiality of the proceedings,” Sabban said in his letter to Gonzalez.

Sabban also added that since the MILF rebels are now on the run in the wake of a military manhunt, they cannot be served subpoenas. — Paolo Romero, John Unson, Helen Flores, Edith Regalado, Perseus Echeminada, Mike Frialde, Jaime Laude, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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