JULY 17, 2009 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang decided yesterday to go for all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf, junking the controversial proposal to grant them amnesty for their atrocities.

“This decision was arrived at after careful study, after giving due consideration to the popular calls for justice and retribution, on the one hand, and to the equally pressing imperative of peace and development in Mindanao,” deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez said.

The decision also reflects the government’s attempt to end the debates generated by the proposal made by Sen. Richard Gordon to grant amnesty and livelihood assistance to the bandits in exchange for laying down their arms.

“This decision not to grant amnesty is consistent with our position that such leniency should be extended only to those accused of political offenses, not common criminals, especially those as brutal as the Abu Sayyaf,” Golez said.

Taking into account the strong and widespread objections over the proposal, Golez said the government couldn’t allow the Abu Sayyaf bandits to go unpunished for their atrocities.

Golez said the decision reflected the confidence of the Arroyo administration that the ongoing peace process in Mindanao would not be affected by the “denial of amnesty to a fringe gang of bandits and terrorists.”

He said the government believes the peace process should continue on the basis of “good faith discussions between the government and mainstream political rebel groups” following the United Nations-sanctioned principles of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

Golez clarified Malacañang did not have any previous stand on the issue and was just being prudent in giving attention to suggestions to end the violence in Mindanao.

“Just like now, and yesterday, all-out war with the terrorist group,” he said.

Golez though did not elaborate on how the decision to reject the amnesty proposal for the Abu Sayyaf came about.

The announcement came just two days after Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, chairman of the Anti-Terrorism Council, said Malacañang would study the amnesty proposal.

Gordon aired the proposal following the release of Italian Red Cross worker Eugenio Vagni who was held captive by the Abu Sayyaf for almost six months.

Gordon claimed some Abu Sayyaf commanders wanted amnesty and livelihood assistance in exchange for laying down their arms.

The senator emphasized that now is the right time for the government to apply a comprehensive solution aimed at ending armed conflict and kidnapping incidents in Mindanao.

He said his proposal to grant amnesty to the Abu Sayyaf must be complimented with good governance and development projects as well as respect, understanding, and acceptance of Filipino Muslims.

The Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s ostensibly to fight for an independent Islamic state. The group later branched off into high-profile abductions and bombings and is on the US government’s list of wanted foreign terrorist organizations.

Washington is providing support for Filipino troops through intelligence information and training on how to fight the bandit group.

The US government through its embassy in Manila said Wednesday that the amnesty proposal might go against the Philippine government’s policy against negotiating with terrorists.

Employ the winning strategy

Gordon’s amnesty proposal for the Abu Sayyaf drew a flurry of reactions from various sectors, along with Malacañang and security officials describing the idea as “objectionable.”

Deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar earlier said the growing public opinion as well as the negative implications on the country’s security ties with other countries could force Malacañang to reject Gordon’s proposal.

Olivar said the strong objections were made even before security officials met to study the proposal.

Security officials led by Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro maintained yesterday his objection against granting amnesty to the Abu Sayyaf.

He said the move would jeopardize the country’s anti-terrorism campaign.

“We might as well give amnesty to bank robbery and other criminals if we do that,” he said.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the government should intensify its campaign against the Abu Sayyaf.

“Unless the extremist group could prove its sincerity in renouncing its terrorist acts and abandoning kidnappings as a main source of survival, there is no need to change government policies midstream,” he said.

Puno said the international community “will not look kindly” at the amnesty being dangled to the Abu Sayyaf in a desperate effort to end the violence in the region.

He said the government should also take into account the sacrifices of the soldiers fighting the bandits in the humid jungles of Sulu and Basilan.

Lawmakers also called on the government to sustain the offensive against the homegrown extremists.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the government should stand firm against the bandit group since they know no religion and laws.

“If only we can rely on their word that they would ‘turn over a new leaf’, that would go a long way to establish law and order in the areas where they operate,” Pimentel said.

“Unfortunately, even the governor of Sulu had said that only an all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf would cause them to mend their ways,” he said.

Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri said the government has everything to gain by going after the Abu Sayyaf with support from the international community.

According to Zubiri, the countries of the European Union only see the Philippines as a kidnapping capital of the world because of the Abu Sayyaf.

“The Abu Sayyaf Group has done great damage to the image of the country. All the Europeans and the members of their parliaments see in the Philippines is the kidnapping issue,” Zubiri said.

Zubiri insisted the government “should not tolerate terrorist activities” by granting them amnesty.

The Nacionalista Party (NP) led by Sen. Manuel Villar Jr. also rejected the amnesty proposal.

The NP warned that a grant of amnesty would set off a fresh surge in kidnappings across the country.

For his part, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Victor Ibrado was cautious about commenting on the issue, saying it is for the national leadership to decide.

“I will not answer that because it’s a national policy matter. I cannot comment on that because I might pre-empt the decision of the government,” he said.

Ibrado formally installed Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ben Dolorfino as the new commander of the Western Mindanao Command yesterday.

He said the appointment of Dolorfino formed part of the new strategy against the Abu Sayyaf.

“We are putting the best players and employing the winning strategy,” Ibrado said.

“We have gained the upper hand, not only crippling their (Abu Sayyaf) ranks, but also their terroristic activities,” he said.

Dolorfino, for his part, said he would put his best foot forward in the offensive against the bandit group.

“We will conduct an all-out approach in Sulu and Basilan to restore peace through 20 percent precise military actions and 80 percent civil-military operations,” he said.

Incoming Marine commandant Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, however, spoke more candidly against the amnesty proposal.

Sabban, who headed the anti-terror Task Force Comet going against the Abu Sayyaf, said amnesty should only be granted to political offenders.

“Why amnesty? Amnesty is only given to those fighting for a political cause,” Sabban asked.

Sabban lamented that he lost some of his finest men fighting the bandit group.

If there are other ways to end the conflict in the region, Sabban suggested the government’s “Balik-Baril” program.

By implementing the program, Sabban said the bandits would have the opportunity to start a new life and livelihood through the cash being offered for every firearm surrendered to the government.

Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo said the Philippine Navy would be willing to provide livelihood projects for the Abu Sayyaf.

Arevalo suggested that the government and other stakeholders should pitch in and contribute to the effort of providing livelihood programs and basic health services to allow the bandits to start a new life.

“An inter-agency approach that would bring to the few regular Abu Sayyaf members – and those who may yet be convinced into joining them – hope that there is a future with modest but respectable means of livelihood, providing for their health and other basic needs,” Arevalo said.

He said a “military solution” alone would not solve the peace and order problem in Sulu and Basilan.

Arevalo said the military has been conducting civil-military operations in the region, such as constructing roads and bridges, school buildings, water systems and adult literacy programs to uplift the lives of the people in these areas.

“To this end, Navy fleet-Marine forces in the area call on the agencies of local and national government to coordinate actions with them to help bring these basic services to the grassroots,” he said. – With Jaime Laude, Christina Mendez, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Roel Pareño, James Mananghaya, Dennis Carcamo, Perseus Echeminada, Edu Punay

GMA back from Egypt trip today By Marvin Sy Updated July 17, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo returns home today after two days in Egypt to attend the 15th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit.

The Chief Executive will land in Awang Airport in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao at 1:30 p.m. to inspect projects in the province.

She will later preside over an anti-terrorism council meeting in Cotabato City.

After planeside honors, Mrs. Arroyo will have a ceremonial drive through the airport access road project.

She will then lead the inauguration of the new airport waiting area.

From Maguindanao, Mrs. Arroyo will proceed to Cotabato City for the anti-terrorism council meeting.

The President was supposed to visit Cotabato City last week, but it was cancelled because of concerns over her security following the series of bombings in the region.

Mrs. Arroyo attended the NAM summit as the designated spokesperson for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez said NAM representatives were “bedazzled” by Mrs. Arroyo’s participation in the functions and welcomed her speech at the opening session last Wednesday.

In her speech, Mrs. Arroyo noted that interfaith dialogue will be the main thrust in the special NAM ministerial meeting in Manila this year.

During yesterday’s general debate, Mrs. Arroyo noted that there are five key areas where the NAM can take the lead in forging international solidarity for peace and development.

The President said the international community must take decisive and sustained actions to address the worst global economic crisis in the post-war era.

“The most important thing we have learned is that our economies are closely interconnected,” she said.

“We sink or swim as one. In the face of this grave situation, we need to strengthen South-South cooperation. We need to enhance regional and sub-regional efforts.”

On efforts to stop climate change, Mrs. Arroyo said the NAM must send a message to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The industrialized countries must decide, before the Copenhagen meeting, on the range of their carbon emission reduction targets,” she said.

“We must call on all countries, but most importantly the major industrialized nations and the rest of the developed world, to live up to their UNFCCC obligations, particularly those related to access to affordable and appropriate technology and funding for climate change management programs.”

On interfaith dialogue, Mrs. Arroyo said it is essential “if we are to end” the disagreements between faiths and between cultures that are killing so many innocent people worldwide.

The ministerial meeting in Manila later this year “will mark the first time that NAM will harness the great potentials of interfaith dialogue and cooperation to advance our concerns for a durable and lasting peace and sustainable development,” she added.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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