MANILA, OCTOBER 26, 2011 (STAR) By Aurea Calica and Delon Porcalla - President Aquino declared yesterday that the government would pursue “all-out justice” against criminal elements that might include some members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) amid calls for him to declare an “all-out war” against the Muslim rebel group.

The President’s pronouncement came a few hours after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched its first air strikes in three years against Muslim separatists.

“All-out war is indiscriminate and borne out of anger. All-out justice is sober and fair. It is based on the rule of law and leads to lasting peace,” Aquino said in a televised press conference in Malacañang late yesterday afternoon.

“In line with this, I have instructed intensified operations against all these criminal elements. The mailed fist of the state will be brought to bear upon them so that justice may be served. There is no question that the state will find them; the only remaining question is when. There will be sacrifices in addressing this decades-old problem. We expect everyone to understand this, and are confident of the cooperation of the citizenry,” he said.

The President said there would be no suspension of the ceasefire or peace talks with the MILF but those from the Muslim rebel group who aided and would coddle their “rogue” comrades and other lawless elements like the Abu Sayyaf Group would also be subject of government operations.

The President said that the AFP began operations to pursue lawless elements in Al-Barka, Basilan on Oct. 18, resulting in the neutralization of nine criminals.

“There have been calls to wage an ‘all-out war’ against the MILF. While it is tempting for the government to join the chorus in calling for blood, we believe that such a course of action is not appropriate at this point. We are not interested in knee-jerk actions that will jeopardize our efforts to address the roots of conflict in the region,” the President said.

Aquino said he recognized that these calls might come “from those who do not have a full awareness of all the factors at play.” He added that there was no point in pursuing an all-out war because there were so many “thinkers smarter than me.”

However, he maintained that his decisions could not be “borne out of ignorance.”

“They have to be based on available facts. It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations at this time. If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm’s way. The difficult peace process cannot be enhanced by shedding more blood and generating more ill will. We have to exhaust all possibilities for attaining peace through dialogue,” the President said.

Nobody asked why the President still trusts that the MILF would cooperate with the government in stopping some of its members from attacking the military and civilians, but Aquino said the sincerity of those in the Muslim rebel group who want to pursue peace will be “demonstrated.”

“They have been showing (sincerity) already. I am not at liberty to tell you where there has been cooperation because that will jeopardize the ongoing operations,” he said.

The President said the government was “targeting certain people, those who will block our forces in pursuit of legitimate operations cannot be differentiated from those we are after.”

“Let’s separate those who don’t want to talk peace from those who do; if we close that door, it is not like instant coffee, when we go all out, it will generate ill will, deaths. A month later, can we expect them to go back to the negotiating table?” he said.

Aquino said backdoor channels are being exploited to make sure that the MILF knows who the military are pursuing.

Air strike not aimed at MILF camps

The President said the air strikes in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay were not aimed at any MILF camp but against members of the MILF who had been part of those the government forces were running after.

“We are not targeting the MILF. We have sent message to the MILF that we are not out to get them, but if some of its members participate, then there is no exception,” the commander-in-chief stressed.

Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang, spokesman for Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said the bomb run was staged as ground forces tried to move in on the fortified enclave of fugitive MILF leader Waning Abdusalam.

The initial bombings were directed against the rebels’ machine gun nests, bunkers, and fortified positions while the second bomb targeted the rebel’s fortified positions in Barangay Labatan.

He said the targets of the law enforcement operations were based on the warrants of arrest issued against Putot Jakaria, Ogis Jakaria, Abdusalam and several other unidentified members issued by Judge Reuben Maraon for kidnapping with serious illegal detention.

Asked if the government would ask the MILF to surrender those who attacked the soldiers in Basilan, the President said the military forces were after Ibrahim Malat Sulayman or Long Malat and Dan Asnawi, who was incarcerated but sprung by some of his comrades.

When told that the MILF had been owning up to the attacks in its website, the President said, “I’m sorry I did not view their website.”

The President stressed that the government “will try to push the negotiations forward to address the roots of the conflict” and assured the public that civilians would be kept safe.

The President also said he would not broadcast how many forces, which firepower would be used and other details for security reasons.

He assured that during operations, “our armed services always have been, and always will be, mindful of the safety of the civilians.”

Bloody results

At least eight were killed, including two soldiers and six rebels, while four troopers were wounded in the ground assault that preceded the intense aerial and artillery bombardment on the position of the “rogue rebels,” according to a military official.

An estimated 40 rebels were also believed wounded in the assault as the troops under the 102nd Army Brigade tried to penetrate the fortified position of Abdusalam in sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan.

The military utilized two OV-10 bronco bombers in the aerial attacks.

The troops also unleashed rounds of 105mm howitzer fire towards the rebels’ positions.

Lawmakers divided on peace talks

At the Senate, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago urged the national government to immediately remove the provision of the ceasefire agreement with the MILF that requires the state to coordinate with the group before entering their so-called territories.

She said this need to coordinate with the rebel group was the cause of the deaths of the government troops at the hands of the MILF.

Santiago explained that this provision should have been discarded immediately when the MILF took custody of the 19 soldiers initially reported in Basilan last week.

She said the situation then was already considered an armed conflict which, under international law, allows the state parties to go after the perpetrators regardless of territorial jurisdiction.

“Military necessity trumps any ceasefire agreement. The murder of 19 soldiers could have been avoided, if the Philippine military and police were allowed to apply the doctrine of fresh pursuit. This rule allows government soldiers to cross jurisdictional lines in fresh pursuit of rebel guerrillas who have committed war crimes,” she said.

Santiago said the deaths were caused by the so-called coordination in the ceasefire agreement.

In a briefing with reporters during a luncheon hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs for her yesterday, Santiago argued that the actions taken by the MILF against the government troops already constitute extrajudicial killing and as party to the Rome Statute, she said those responsible should be punished.

She said that the MILF cannot be allowed to continue hiding behind their numerous excuses and legal shields to escape responsibility for the attacks last week.

Santiago said that the leaders of the MILF should immediately turn over the perpetrators to the government as a show of good faith if they are really sincere about pursuing a peace agreement with the state.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate committee on national defense and security, said President Aquino’s call for “all-out justice” against the MILF should be a clear signal to the AFP and the Philippine National Police “to relentlessly pursue intensified operations to serve justice to all our soldiers and civilians who fell victims to the atrocities of ‘rogue’ members of MILF.”

At the House of Representatives, opposition congressman Rodolfo Albano of Isabela urged the President to listen to the sentiments of his “bosses” in deciding what to do with the peace talks with the MILF and its fighters who killed scored of soldiers.

Five Mindanao lawmakers, on the other hand, urged the government to stick to the peace process.

“We must say no to total war in Mindanao. To wage ‘total’ war is by definition to take huge numbers of innocent lives – and perpetuate the cycle of senseless violence, death, and destruction,” Lanao del Sur Rep. Pangalian Balindong said in a statement he read for his group in a news conference.

Balindong’s group included Nur Jaafar of Tawi-Tawi, Jim Hataman-Salliman of Basilan, Bai Sandra Sema of Maguindanao, and Nur Ann Sahidula of Sulu.

Responding to questions, Hataman-Salliman said the MILF should consider surrendering to the government its fighters who were involved in the ambush-murder of soldiers.

Jaafar, on the other hand, suggested that the military could mount a “surgical operation” to catch those who carried out the ambush.

Another administration ally, Rep. Erin Tañada of Quezon, added his voice to the chorus of support for Aquino’s peace tack.

Tañada and the five Mindanao lawmakers are the latest group of administration lawmakers who have expressed support for Aquino’s decision not to declare war on the MILF.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, meanwhile, urged the President to convene the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss the MILF problem.

He said Aquino should rely on the collective wisdom of the NSC and not the on the “bungling assessment of the presidential adviser on the peace process and the amateurish pronouncements of presidential spokespersons.”

He said Aquino’s mother, the late President Cory Aquino, issued Executive Order 115 on Dec. 24, 1986, reorganizing the Security Council “purposely to formulate and adopt policies, programs and procedures on all matters pertaining to or affecting the national security so that judgments and actions thereon by the President may rest on sound advice and accurate information.”

The council is composed of the President, the Vice-President, secretary of foreign affairs, executive secretary, secretary of national defense, secretary of justice, secretary of labor and employment, secretary of local government, national security adviser, chief of staff of the armed forces, and such other government officials and private citizens as the President may designate from time to time.

Erap still wants all-out war

Meanwhile, former President Joseph Estrada said it will only take the Aquino government three months to pulverize the MILF if it wanted to.

In an interview over television station ANC, Estrada also said an all-out war and not peace negotiations is needed by the government to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao because the MILF is not sincere.

“It can be done. We did that only in three months time,” he said, referring to the all-out war that his administration had staged against the MILF, which resulted in the government takeover of 46 MILF camps, including its biggest, Camp Abubakar in 2000.

The Estrada administration’s all out war against the MILF cost the government an estimated P900 million, but the continuing conflict in Mindanao reportedly cost the government P10 billion per year based on the Human Development Report.

However, out of respect, Estrada said he is giving Aquino time.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, however, expressed his full support for the President’s decision to pursue peace talks with the MILF, and emphasized that a thorough review of the terms of the ceasefire accord is urgently needed. – Jess Diaz, Roel Pareño, Marvin Sy, Christina Mendez, Jose Rodel Clapano


More attacks launched as Aquino defends talks by Florante S. Solmerin and Joyce Pangco Pañares

The President says he wants his reasons for not waging an all-out war ‘cascaded’ down the ranks of the Armed Forces

FIVE civilians and three soldiers were killed in two more attacks by Moro rebels in Basilan and Lanao del Norte, the military said Sunday as President Benigno Aquino III defended his policy of pursuing the peace talks with the insurgents.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz said four plantation workers and a militiaman were killed and eight other civilians were wounded in an ambush Sunday by suspected Muslim rebels in Basilan province.

The Army said suspected rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front also ambushed troops Sunday in Lanao del Norte province, killing three soldiers. Lt. Col. Bagnus Gaerlan, commanding officer of the Army’s 5th Infantry Battalion, survived the attack, a military spokesman, Maj. Harold Cabunoc, said.

“The Army officer and his soldiers were on their way to visit troops when they were ambushed,” Cabunoc said.

“The identities of the assailants were unknown, but MILF rebels were roaming in the area.”

Meanwhile, police said 120 gunmen on Saturday seized an abandoned school building on an island in Zamboanga Sibugay province. No casualties were reported in the firefight between the gunmen and troops and militiamen who sought to expel them, police spokesman Chief Supt. Agrimero Cruz Jr. said

On Wednesday and Thursday last week, MILF rebels attacked government forces in the towns of Alicia and Kabasalan, killing four soldiers and four policemen and injuring seven others.

Since the biggest attack in Basilan on Tuesday, the number of soldiers and civilians killed has risen to 34. Six rebels were also reported killed.

Despite the most recent attacks, President Aquino rejected calls to suspend the peace talks and declare an all-out war on the rebels.

He relieved three military officers over the Basilan attack, including the commanding officer of the 4th Special Forces Battalion, Lt. Col. Leonardo Peña, who was responsible for the operation.

Communications Secretary Ramon Carandang said Mr. Aquino had ordered “a cascading” of the explanation as to why the government was not launching an all-out war.

“We have to explain to our soldiers what happened. The order was coursed through [Armed Forces chief] General [Eduardo] Oban [Jr.],” Carandang said.

Over the weekend, former President Fidel Ramos chided government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen for calling the Basilan killings an “isolated incident.”

He told Leonen to go to Basilan to see the situation on the ground, where MILF rebels had repeatedly attacked soldiers running after the Abu Sayyaf bandits Group.

Carandang said the government would still run after the killers of the 19 soldiers, but within the cease-fire mechanisms established with the MILF.

The Moro group on Sunday said it was provoked by the Armed Forces.

“We are being provoked because we are being attacked,” a spokesman, Von Al Haq, told the news channel ANC. He described the recent spate of violence an act of self-defense on the part of the Moro rebels.

Senator Panfilo Lacson on Sunday joined other Palace allies in calling for breaking off the peace talks with the rebels.

“It has become a vicious cycle: the rogues conduct atrocities, kidnap civilians, or attack and ambush our troops, and then seek refuge within the confines of the MILF encampments,” Lacson said.

He said he could only imagine the frustration of the Army Special Forces in not being able to rescue six of its captured men simply because they were not supposed to encroach on an off-limits zone.

Lacson also advised government negotiators to “wake up” to the reality that the renewed peace talks had become an arena for posturing by the MILF, which wanted to deal from a position of strength.

But Senator Franklin Drilon, a staunch Aquino supporter, said he supported the President’s decision not to break off the talks with the MILF.

“The government must exhaust all means to pursue the peace process with the MILF,” he said.

From Thailand, Vice President Jejomar Binay called for a review of the cease-fire agreement with the Moro rebels in light of the recent clashes.

“We should be very clear about accountability. Those who violate [the cease-fire] must be punished,” Binay said.

“There should be greater candor, acceptance of responsibilities and a display of good faith.”

Also on Sunday, more than 100 Muslims walked barefoot to the Quezon Memorial Circle to dramatize their support of the President’s decision to continue the peace talks. With Rio N. Araja

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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