MANILA, AUGUST 22, 2008 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo apparently issued an ultimatum yesterday to the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) challenging the rebels to choose between war or peace, following the guerrilla attacks in Lanao del Norte and Sarangani that left scores dead last Monday.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the President demanded the MILF leadership to surrender rogue commanders Abduhrahman Macapaar alias Commander Bravo, and Ameril Umbra Kato who led the rebel groups that attacked the villages and killed more than 40 civilians and soldiers.

He said in the past, the government tolerated and let pass minor skirmishes between its forces and the MILF on the latter’s excuse that these were perpetrated by rogue elements.

“This excuse has been abused for too long and the President now draws the line,” he said.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo ordered the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to hunt the MILF commanders and directed government agencies to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected communities.

“President Arroyo is angered and deeply frustrated by the treacherous acts committed by the MILF that have now clouded the prospects of an early positive conclusion of the peace process between the government and the MILF,” Ermita said during a news conference at Malacañang.

He said the President also “detests the MILF leadership’s lack of control” over its so-called base commanders.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro offered P5 million each to anyone who can give information leading to the capture of Macapaar and Kato who led the rampage in Kolambugan, Kauswagan, Linamon, Maigo and Bacolod in Lanao del Norte and Maasim, Sarangani.

The PNP had filed 61 separate criminal complaints against Kato and other MILF commanders who were responsible for terrorizing several villages in North Cotabato two weeks ago.

“The President regrets that the MILF’s failure to restrain its field commanders reflects the organization’s lack of sincerity to push for a successful conclusion of the peace process,” he said.

Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera also told the Supreme Court that the Arroyo administration will not sign the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) with the MILF following the attacks and an impending review and possible renegotiation of the controversial agreement.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez earlier said the attacks were virtually a declaration of war by the MILF.

Ermita said the latest posture of the government was also an implicit warning to the top MILF leaders that if they cannot stop the actions of their subordinates, they would also be legally held accountable.

He said while the MILF leadership were denying or disowning the atrocities of Macapaar and Kato, the former appear to not only be fully aware but were actually directing the attacks.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo directed the military and police forces to conduct pursuit operations against the MILF rebels, during the Cabinet security cluster meeting at the Palace on Tuesday night.

He said military and police operations would only be suspended when Kato and Macapaar are neutralized and all their hostages released.

Mrs. Arroyo also warned other armed groups not to take advantage of the situation in Mindanao by undertaking their own destabilization efforts, he said referring to communist rebels. “In such occurrences, government armed forces will not hesitate to act in a manner that is most appropriate and swift to contain these groups,” he said.

She also instructed the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Health, Education, Defense, Interior and Local Government and other agencies to assist local government officials provide relief and rehabilitation to the affected residents, Ermita said.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo welcomed the call made by Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Leila de Lima for the MILF to surrender Macapaar and Kato.

MILF commander denies atrocities

Macapaar, MILF 102nd Base Command, has denied any responsibility for last Monday’s attacks in Lanao del Norte and instead claimed that mujahedins or “holy warriors” conducted the raids.

Macapaar told Radio Mindanao Network that he and his men were not involved in the attacks in Lanao del Norte because they were inside their camps during the time of the raids.

MILF leaders, however, debunked Macapaar’s claims and said that the rebel commander will be investigated over the attacks.

Macapaar said the attacks were conducted by mujahedins who were frustrated over the delayed signing of the MOA-AD between the government and the MILF.

Macapaar also challenged the military to face the mujahedins.

“We are prepared to trade fire with them until we are decimated. If they cannot finish us, we will finish them,” Bravo said. “We are prepared to kill, we are prepared to be killed.”

“What the Muslims want is Islamic justice in Mindanao,” he said of the MILF which has been waging a separatist rebellion since 1978. “In the eyes of Allah we are not terrorists.”

He said that as far as the MILF 102nd Base Command is concerned, the MILF leadership still has authority over them and that they still follow their chain of command.

Macapaar also blamed North Cotabato Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, Zamboanga Mayor Celso Lobregat, Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Cruz and the Supreme Court for provoking the mujahedins.

The officials who were protesting the MOA-AD petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the signing and the SC issued a temporary restraining order last Aug. 5 that stopped the government from signing the agreement that would give more territory to the rebels.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said that whether those who are responsible for the attacks were mujahedins or not, the attackers are attached to the 102nd Base Command of the MILF.

He said they want the incidents investigated because Commander Bravo should face responsibility for the attacks.

Maj. Armand Rico, spokesman for the Armed Forces Eastern Mindanao Command, said Commander Kato was wounded after the rebels were ambushed by armed men in Kabuntalan, Shariff Kabungsuwan last Tuesday.

Rico said Kato led the attacks in Aleosan, North Cotabato two weeks ago and also the raids in Lanao del Norte last Monday.

He said Kato was hit in the armpit while two other rebels were killed. Three other guerrillas, including Kato’s son, were also wounded.

9 MILF rebels killed in Maguindanao

Nine MILF rebels were killed yesterday morning while an Army lieutenant was wounded during an encounter in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, identified the wounded officer only as 2Lt. Bautista who led troops that were ambushed by rebels in Barangay Tapikan, Shariff Aguak.

Mayor Datu Tato Ampatuan of the nearby town of Mamasapano said hundreds of families from four barangays near Barangay Tapikan have fled their villages and sought shelter in neighboring villages in Shariff Aguak.

The retreating rebels carried the bodies of dead and wounded companions, Ando said, even as another group of rebels also engaged soldiers that were dispatched to the area to reinforce Bautista’s group.

Military officials said the rebels belonged to MILF band of Amiril Umbra Kato and Wahid Tundok.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu blamed the soldiers for provoking the MILF in Shariff Aguak.

“When you are attacked, normally you will fight back, defend your territory. That’s what happened there,” Kabalu said.

Tension gripped several villages in Tacurong City after residents sighted MILF rebels in the area.

City Councilor Regcel Pauya, chairman of the committee on peace and order of the Sangguniang Panglungsod (SP) of Tacurong City, said the residents of Barangays Katungal, Tambak and Bilumen saw hundreds of guerrillas resting in the nearby mountains.

Military troops are monitoring the movements of the MILF guerrillas.

PNP set to distribute shotguns to residents

PNP chief Director General Avelino Razon Jr. said at least 1,000 shotguns would be distributed to responsible residents that would be appointed as members of the police auxiliary units in several regions in Mindanao to assist the police in countering MILF attacks.

Razon said the shotguns would be distributed to several provinces in Western Mindanao (Region 9), Northern Mindanao (Region 10), Southern Mindanao (Region 11), and Central Mindanao (Region 12).

“The police provincial directors will determine how the shotguns will be distributed,” said Razon, who noted that the move is legal and based on Executive Order 546, which grants the PNP an active role in Internal Security Operations.

Razon pointed out that only qualified individuals would receive guns, including law-abiding citizens, those who have no criminal records, physically fit, have good moral standing, and barangay tanods.

PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome said the police auxiliary will also undergo training from skilled PNP personnel and receive an allowance.

“We will hire the services of civilian volunteers to form part of the police auxiliary. They will be properly trained and they will be utilized in the defense of the different villages and barangays,” Bartolome added. Meanwhile, Razon said if police auxiliary force will be proven to be effective deterrent to crime, then the PNP might distribute more shotguns in other regions.

Residents of Barangay Lampari in Banga, South Cotabato in the meantime have asked local officials to provide the villagers with firearms to defend themselves from an MILF attack.

Lampari barangay chairman Boy Miskin said they are all willing to help the government forces in fighting the rebels.

Officials of Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte have ordered municipal employees to go home and suspended classes in all levels following threats from MILF rebels.

Felipe Ybarsabal, a resident of Siocon, said acting Mayor Cesar Soriano said municipal hall operations and classes would resume in September.

“We have been advised here by the mayor to stay at home as government and school activities have been suspended,” Ybarsabal said. - With James Mananghaya, Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, John Unson, Roel Pareño, Ramil Bajo

GMA cancels MOA-AD By Paolo Romero Friday, August 22, 2008

President Arroyo has cancelled the agreement on ancestral domain that would have given large tracts of land in Mindanao and virtual independence to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“She (Mrs. Arroyo) will seek a new agreement within the boundaries of law set within the Constitution,” deputy presidential spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo told reporters yesterday. “Furthermore, the President will not allow adventurism by MILF forces to pressure government to sign any agreement even if it is for peace.”

Fajardo said Mrs. Arroyo was “sensitive” to the objections of Christian leaders in Mindanao, who have branded the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as a “sell-out.”

“The President is committed to peace,” she said. “The administration is sensitive to public sentiment and the President is also committed to upholding the Constitution.”

Peace efforts would now focus on “authentic consultations with the people, (not) negotiations with armed groups,” Fajardo said.

However, Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator, warned Malacañang that they would defend with their lives the MOA-AD.

“For us it’s a done deal,” he said. “Now if Malacañang will violate that (agreement), lalaban kami,” Iqbal said the agreement is now “part and parcel” of the official documents of the Mindanao peace process.

The MOA-AD became official following the initialing of the document by representatives of the government and MILF peace panels in Kuala Lumpur, he added.

Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice-chairman, said attempts to renegotiate the MOA-AD were unacceptable.

“As far as the MILF leadership is concerned, the (agreement) is already a done deal,” he said.

The MILF would not re-negotiate the agreement, “even if it means an indefinite postponement of the 11-year-old peace process,” Jaafar said.

Meanwhile presidential political adviser Gabriel Claudio told reporters peace talks with MILF have not been abandoned, but that more emphasis would be given to consultations with the affected communities.

The MOA-AD had called for the establishment of what amounted to a state within a state with its own “basic law,” police and internal security force.

The planned Bangsamoro homeland would have been allowed to run its own banking and finance system, civil service, education and legislative and electoral institutions.

It would also have been given full authority to develop and dispose of minerals and other natural resources within its territory.

It would have been governed by the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), with full authority to send trade missions and strike economic cooperation agreements with other countries and send representatives to UN agencies and the Association of Southeast Nations.

OSG told to clarify stand

Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera must clarify the government’s position on the MOA-AD with the MILF in today’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

SC spokesman Midas Marquez said even if the agreement would be cancelled by the government, the Court would still decide the case.

“In some cases, the Court does that,” he said.

“In some cases, even if it is already declared moot, the Court proceeds to rule because the issues have been presented before the Court and there is an issue to resolve for guidance, to guide everyone.”

Marquez said it is unclear to the Court the government’s actual stand on the issue.

“If you read the motion of the Solicitor General, there is no categorical statement there,” he said. “The SolGen would have to convince the Court if that is the real intention of the government. She will have to convince the Court that the (agreement) in its present form will no longer be signed. Not only the Court but also the petitioners.”

Marquez said based on news reports, it appears that the government is no longer pushing through with the MOA-AD.

“That is something which has not yet been relayed to the Court formally,” he said.

“We have read newspaper accounts, but I think there has to be a formal manifestation of that intention to the Court.”

‘SC must review agreement’

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon, Sen. Manuel Roxas II and United Opposition spokesman Adel Tamano opposed yesterday the OSG’s motion to quash their petitions questioning the legality of the MOA-AD before the SC.

“A statement by Solicitor General Devanedera said that the government will review the terms of the (agreement) or will renegotiate its terms is not tantamount to a commitment that they will not sign the same,” Drilon said in a statement.

“The results of the intended review or renegotiation of the MOA include among its distinct possibilities a decision to adopt the exact or equivalent MOA in contention, thus leaving very much alive, ripe and intact for adjudication the claims and prayers of the Petitions as well as the Petitions-in-Intervention.”

As intervenors, Drilon, Roxas and Tamano asked the SC last Aug. 11 to permanently bar the Philippine panel from signing the agreement with the MILF on grounds that it violated the Constitution.

“For the reason that the claims or demands of the Petitioners and Intervenors have not been satisfied or addressed, the Consolidated Petitions must be allowed to proceed,” Drilon said.

In their joint opposition, Drilon, Tamano and Roxas said there is no legal basis for the dismissal of the consolidated petitions.

“It is clear that the government is now attempting to render moot the issues raised by the petitioners and intervenors by a weakly undertaking to conduct a review of the MOA,” read the petition. “If the Consolidated Petitions are summarily dismissed on the strength thereof, there will be no complete determination of Respondents’ grave abuse of discretion and unconstitutional actions in excess of or without jurisdiction in agreeing to bind the government to provisions constituting grave constitutional violations.

“In order to put into rest the issue of the constitutionality of the (agreement), and prevent the government from entering into the same, or similar unconstitutional agreements in the future, the Supreme Court, must once and for all, subject the MOA to judicial review.”

No surrender for Kato, Bravo

Iqbal told reporters yesterday the MILF will not surrender Ameril Umbra Kato alias Commander Kato and Abdullah Macapaar alias Commander Bravo, the MILF commanders who led their men on a rampage in Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces.

Kato is commander of the MILF’s 105th Command based in Liguasan Marsh and Bravo is commander of the MILF’s 102nd Command in the two Lanao provinces.

The government had demanded that MILF surrender the two after their men attacked and plundered several barangays in Cotabato and Lanao del Norte and killed civilians last Monday.

Kato and Bravo each carry a P5 million bounty on their head. – With Jaime Laude, Mike Frialde, Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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