MANILA, AUGUST 20, 2008 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo ordered the military and the police yesterday to “defend every inch” of the country from Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels who launched “sneaky and treacherous” attacks on several towns in Lanao del Norte that left more than 30 people dead and forced the evacuation of thousands.

“As your commander-in-chief I have ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police to defend every inch of Philippine territory against MILF forces, and immediately restore peace in the affected areas in Lanao del Norte,” a grim-faced Mrs. Arroyo said in a recorded television statement.

“We will not tolerate and will crush any attempt to disturb peace and development in Mindanao,” Mrs. Arroyo added.

“Again, I assure the Filipino people that the government will defend them at all costs against any move by any group that will disrupt our aspirations for a genuine and lasting peace not only in Mindanao but in the whole country,” Mrs. Arroyo said. “I am with you in peace. We are all in this together.”

After a late afternoon meeting of the National Security Council, officials challenged the MILF leadership to show sincerity by turning over the rebel leaders responsible for the carnage in Lanao del Norte and other parts of Mindanao.

“It is incumbent upon them to show good faith,” Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said last night at a press conference after the NSC meeting.

“If that good faith would not materialize, this will cause doubts among our authorities,” he said.

“Value of dialogue is always there but parameters of dialogue must be changed to suit conditions on the ground for those sincere with peace and sift out those (who are not sincere),” Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said at the same briefing.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said the NSC meeting was scheduled to take place today but “events overtook us” so it was held a day earlier.

“No one will be allowed to hide behind the peace process and escape the might of the government here because this is really to protect the helpless civilians who have been unduly attacked,” Dureza said. “They have crossed the line.”

Reacting to Mrs. Arroyo’s order, the Kilusang Mayo Uno said the President “is the real butcher of the Bangsamoro people.”

“The toiling masses and oppressed people in Mindanao are now caught in a war field that Arroyo and cohorts have instigated in the first place,” said KMU secretary-general Wilson Baldonaza.

A day before Mrs. Arroyo issued her orders, Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr. quietly flew to Kuala Lumpur presumably to meet with Malaysian facilitators.

When contacted by The STAR, Esperon declined to disclose details of his trip except to say that it was official and that he intended to be back in Manila today.

He said the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain as well the fighting in Mindanao is affecting efforts to jumpstart the negotiations.

Esperon admitted the problem with dealing with the MILF is that it is an irregular force that has no clear accountability or chain of command compared to institutionalized forces like the military.

“But we still need to negotiate or the alternative is unthinkable – more bloodshed,” he said.

“The peace process will always be given primacy. However, we view the recent incidents with grave concern. We must get to the bottom of these very disturbing incidents,” Esperon said in a statement.

‘Declaration of war’

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, a member of the security cluster, said the MILF’s offensive was “virtually a declaration of war.”

“I think they (MILF) are trying to provoke the government. This is a clear provocation and virtually a declaration of war on their part,” he said in a telephone interview.

He said the Arroyo administration was bent on salvaging the talks but “I doubt if we can trust the MILF now.”

He said the attacks were somewhat a blessing in disguise since it showed “what is on their (rebels) minds.”

“If we unleash the dogs of war, it would be hard to rein them in quickly,” he said.

Gonzalez said the peace talks should be held in abeyance in view of the SC deliberations as well as the fighting in Mindanao.

He said while the MILF leadership has been always disowning some of its more radical members, it appears the latest attacks were coordinated with the top leaders.

“I know there are really some recalcitrant members but they also take advantage of that. They (MILF) are apparently playing the good cop and bad cop and try to push us to the brink,” Gonzalez said.

The attacks came days after the military halted a fierce offensive against the separatist rebels in another part of Mindanao.

“We will deal with these armed groups forcefully. This is a blatant attack on civilians,” Dureza said.

Last week, the military bombed MILF positions for four straight days, triggering an exodus of around 160,000 people, amid accusations the rebels had occupied Christian farmlands. But the MILF distanced itself from the latest attacks.

“Our leadership has not sanctioned these attacks. This has to stop if we can confirm the involvement of our forces,” MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said.

One resident said hundreds of people were fleeing the coastal town of Kauswagan on boat because fighting between armed locals and the rebels left the main road blocked.

On Sunday, around 100 rebel fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, attacked a military convoy, killing seven soldiers and wounding dozens.

Elsewhere in the province, five people were killed in rebel attacks, and a bus and several houses were burned, local radio said.

Legal experts expect the SC to rule against the MOA, which seeks to give wide political and economic powers to a future government of an expanded Muslim homeland.

Attacks meant to push MOA

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon said the MILF’s attacks were meant to force the government into implementing the MOA on ancestral domain.

Biazon said the areas attacked by the MILF rebels have three things in common: they are Christian-dominated localities, they are not within the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and they are all covered by the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) under the MOA.

“So what is this all about? What is the objective of the MILF in attacking these localities? Are these actions designed to enforce what they called a done deal of the memorandum of agreement?” he asked.

“I think it is now time for the convening of the National Security Council to discuss this matter, remember these are being done under the existing peace process,” Biazon said.

Biazon also pushed for a “renegotiation” of the MOA between the government and the MILF.

“There must be a renegotiation of the MOA. And there are two cases that I would like to be addressed: how effective do we want the ceasefire to be and how do we address the question of the lost commands,” Biazon said. “I want that to be addressed in the MOA,” he told reporters.

“All of the incidents are becoming obstacles to a credible, reasonable peace process. My point is renegotiation,” he said.

Charges filed

Even as violence continued in many parts of Mindanao, police said they have already filed criminal cases against an MILF commander and several others who remain at large.

Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome said cases of serious illegal detention have been filed against Umbra Kato and his men who belong to the MILF’s 105th base command.

Bartolome said charges of murder, robbery and arson against several others will be filed anytime this week.

“We assure the different communities that the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines will provide necessary security to prevent similar activities,” the PNP spokesman added.

Authorities said it was Kato’s men who pillaged several North Cotabato villages after the botched signing of the MOA in Malaysia last Aug. 5.

At least one soldier was killed and 11 others were wounded when government security forces tried to flush the rebels out of the occupied towns. - With Jose Rodel Clapano, Cecille Suerte Felipe, and Helen Flores

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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