MANILA, AUGUST 25, 2006 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Too many troops in Sulu may only stumble over each other.

At a meeting yesterday with Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes C. Esperon Jr., to which he brought his top close-in staff officers, we discussed the latest developments in the increasingly massive manhunt for Abu Sayyaf Chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani and the two top-rung Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists, who’ve been playing a deadly game of "hide-and-seek" with pursuing Army, Marine, Air Force, Special Operations units, and elements of the Philippine Navy, for over two weeks.

It’s clear that winkling out Janjalani and the two Bali Bombers with him is proving more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack. What’s interesting is that the Abu Sayyaf, and other rebel units, are operating in Sulu in force – at times injecting 150 or more men into an encounter. They must, obviously, "protect" not just Janjalani but in particular the Malaysian terrorists Dulmatin and Umae Patek.

General Jun Esperon, will soon dispatch to Sulu a few detachments of Special Forces (currently under the command of Col. Art Ortiz, incidentally one of our most valiant Medal of Valor holders, the highest military award, earned by him in combat against the New People’s Army).

But here may I insert a caveat. Too many of our troops running around in Sulu, from Patikul to Indanan, inevitably begin to stumble over each other. I don’t fancy myself some armchair military "genius," but fewer, more anti-guerrilla savvy soldiers – what they like to call "a lean mean machine" – might be more effective. (Coupled, of course, with HUMINT, or human intelligence, which includes the "paying off" of informers).

The search for the terrorists, surely, won’t be hampered by the fact that the fugitive Dulmatin, who was trained in bomb-making in the al-Qaeda terror camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 persons, the majority of the victims Australian tourists. The United States has put a $10 million price-tag on the murderous rascal Dulmatin’s head, which ought to be a juicy incentive for somebody in the ASG’s own ranks, or some Tausog in the know to make some real money.

The truth is that al-Qaeda seems to be operating in Mindanao with the intent of making it one of its bases (al-Qaeda in Arabic, after all, means "the base") in its global terror network.

Last August 15, The Wall Street Journal ran as its lead editorial: "The Philippine Terror Front." In the article, the WSJ’s editors wrote: "The islands of the Sulu archipelago, in the southern Philippines, ought to be the perfect holiday hot spot. They boast lush jungles and unspoiled beaches, everything the weary vacationer could want. But they’re also home to something far more deadly: several of Asia’s most-wanted terrorists. Their presence shows how this tropical paradise is fast becoming the latest base in the region for al-Qaeda and its affiliates."

The Journal went on to aver that "terror experts say that at least four leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al-Qaeda’s Asian affiliate, are hiding out in the jungles of the southern Philippines – using it as a base to direct operations and train suicide bombers."

Sanamagan. Can any accusation in the foreign press be more specific?

The daily quotes Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, as saying that the JI and the Abu Sayyaf have teamed up: "Both groups share the goal of creating a pan-Islamic state that stretches across Southeast Asia, and the danger is that their new alliance will draw in Muslim terrorists who seek the same goal elsewhere in the world."

Although the Abu Sayyaf, in military acronym the "ASG", has only a few hundred members, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, "it has already been responsible for the country’s deadliest terror attack: the February 2004 Superferry bombing, in Manila Bay, which killed 116 people."

The government foolishly tried to downplay the Superferry atrocity as just having been an "accident" when the explosion occurred which split apart the fully-loaded Superferry bound for the south. The truth is that it was a terrorist attack as vicious Mumbai rush-hour train bombings of last February, which killed 197 commuters and injured more than 800, or the Madrid train bombings which slew more than 200, and injured 1,000. All had been launched by Islamic terrorists.

If you’ll recall, the "deal" was first revealed in this corner in which US President George W. Bush, placing such a premium on the capture or killing of Janjalani and the foreign terrorists who are his "guests", as well as the passage of an Anti-Terrorism Law (which is now even more stalled in the Senate than ever), dangled the carrot of an "invitation" to a "working lunch" in the White House in front of our Presidenta’s nose – with the "invite" to be delivered when the two meet next month at the coming Asian-European summit in Helsinki.

The fact is that the Americans have not tarried in any way to await the outcome of the hunt for the Muslim terrorists. They’re very much in the game already. However, so as not to leave their footprint on the operation, the "Yanks" are entrenched in Cebu, not Mindanao.

They’re checked into a leading hotel right smack at the airport of Mactan, and their "engineers" and technical men, with all the needed equipment, are installed in another hotel, the Crown Plaza – also in Mactan. US vessels are reportedly, even standing by in international waters, just outside our territorial limits, "just in case" their spotter drones, or spotter aircraft are required in the Get-Janjalani and Company maneuvers. Just in case? Their spotter craft are overflying Sulu and central Mindanao, and perhaps at least one of their spy satellite eyes in the stratosphere may be focused on the areas of search and conflict.

All these, of course, are no substitute for "boots on the ground" – which means the Filipino footsoldier is in there, tramping through jungle and swamp – underpaid, over-exposed.

I wish the Americans would give us a few helicopter gunships and night-flying choppers, not even a fraction of what they gift Israel yearly, so the IDF boys from Jerusalem can zap the Hezbollah and pulverize Lebanon with F-16s, smart bombs, and even cluster bombs, plus assault fire from their mobile artillery. If you ask me, the Israelis lost the last round.

Sanamagan, now the Hezbollah, though slightly battered, have turned from guerrillas and rocket-launchers, into neighborhood do-gooders, doling out fat wads of dollars to Lebanese who have lost their homes, and most everything else; and pledging to "rebuild" their districts, villages and towns.

Where do those shiny dollar notes come from? Probably from Iran. But who cares in suffering Lebanon? They’re grateful for the Hezbollah’s "charity," their helping hand, and boiling with hatred for the ruthless Israelis.

Nobody in the Lebanese tragedy has the right to cast the first stone – all are "guilty", from the Hezbollah, the Shiites, the Lebanese who support that movement, and the government which failed to disarm the Hezbollah despite two United Nations resolutions, the first dating back to 2004.

Neither are the Syrians who supplied the Katushya rockets to the Hezbollah; nor the Iranians who provided rockets, sophisticated anti-tank missiles and other weaponry, and hard cash.

Least of all are the Israelis "innocent." They sought to punish an entire nation – indeed, destroy Lebanon’s power plants, water filtration plants, highways, bridges and vital infrastructure in a fury of revenge.

* * *

Some years ago, at the height of "Operation Grapes of Wrath," in which the Israeli Defense Forces, with our old friend Shimon Peres then Prime Minister ordering the attack, shelled Southern Lebanon incessantly, even hitting a UN command and killing many Lebanese evacuees and refugees there, I wrote in this column that the Israelis must beware of acting like the Nazis.

Angered by my criticism, the Israeli Ambassador of that time (whose name escapes me for the moment, although we were otherwise friends) immediately cancelled an Israel National Day supplement, worth P300,000, which had been scheduled to appear in The Philippine STAR a couple of days later.

I shrugged and told the fuming Ambassador: "Okay but I stand by what I wrote. I’ve been to your Holocaust shrine in Israel twice, and once to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and what you’re doing in Lebanon reminds me of the pogroms the Nazis, as demonstrated in your two museums, used to visit on the Jews."

"How can you equate what’s happening in Lebanon with the extermination by Hitler and his Nazi murderers of six million Jews?" the envoy – a retired IDF general, by the way – fumed.

"Mr. Ambassador," I replied, "we Filipinos did not kill any of your six million Jews – and we’re even, for some strange reason, circumcised like you are – but dammit, you cannot expect the entire world to feel guilty about your six million victims forever, and permit you to run roughshod over other people in your self-defense!"

Weeks, later, he gifted me with a small watercolor he had painted himself – on which was written the greeting Shalom, which means almost everything (in Ivrit) from "hello" to "peace." In any event, "peace," he beamed. So we made peace with each other – although, by golly, he didn’t offer, coming from a land with Ilocano habits, to find a way to get us that P300,000 back.

* * * I

t’s about time PETRON – scared by the prospect of a "class suit" being filed against it by those on Guimaras who have lost their livelihood – took a more active hand in combatting the effects of the terrible oil spill. PETRON, as required by international agreements, is heavily insured – and the insurance alone ought to be more than enough for the clean-up and soak-up operations. In Guimaras alone, some 23,000 people lost their means of livelihood and their beaches and surrounding sea, for all the effort expended, will remain polluted for years to come.

The carrier contracted by PETRON, which operates the M/T SOLAR I now at the bottom of the sea off Guimaras, more than 3,000 feet deep, is even more directly liable – and should, by law, also have comprehensive insurance coverage.

It’s now turning out that the captain or "master" of the ship made the ill-starred decision to sail into stormy seas, despite the already suspiciously-poor condition of his vessel, as a result of which the tanker floundered and sank on August 11. The oil which flowed into the sea from its ruptured tanks caused the worst oil spill in our country’s history.

What’s distressing is that the tanker, carrying two million liters of bunker fuel, had already started listing to starboard when the ship was passing west of Antique island the previous day, August 10. The shipmaster, Norberto Aguro, noting the ship was listing to its right, brought his ship into Iloilo harbor to check out what was wrong.

It was found that the fresh water tank and adjacent compartments had been flooded with seawater in the rough waters they had encountered, and so, the 18-man crew manned pumps to flush the seawater out. Then, the shipmaster, despite his vessel’s already "weakened" condition, ordered his crew to set out again from the safe anchorage to resume its voyage to Zamboanga. By golly – it was a decision worse than Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick. The Philippine Coast Guard is belatedly trying to blame Aguro (and indeed he should take responsibility) for sneaking out with his ship.

What about the Coast Guard? Why weren’t they on hand to assess the damage, conjecture whether the ship was "seaworthy" and order the oil tanker kept in port? Susmariosep, they couldn’t even manage to stay alert and do their duty – yet they wanted to sail all the way to Lebanon!

As for the continued "seepage" of oil from the sunken tanker, that can easily be determined by inspection – not press releases. Former Subic (SBMA) Chairman and CEO Felicito "Tong" Payumo wrote me a note the other day saying he had been in Subic over the weekend to talk to a professional diver on what could be done to prevent the "remaining 1.7 million liters still trapped in the sunken tanker from spilling out of the tanks." This is Brian Homan, an Australian diver who did the job of refloating the FEDEX plane which had once overshot the Subic runway and ended up in the water.

"While I knew that retrieving an airplane from 30 feet of water near the shoreline is easier than salvaging an oil tanker 3,000 feet deep in open sea," Payumo told me, "I thought we should try what he suggested."

Homan said that he knew of only two ships in the Philippines that could make the try of determining to discover whether there is still a leak in the tanks, because they have submersible ROVs (remote operated vehicles) – one is owned by the Malampaya Corporation which constructed its concrete gravity structure in Subic and towed it to Malampaya (in Palawan) and the other is the Cable Retriever Ship, which happens to be docked at this moment in Subic.

"Remember the submersible robot in the movie Titanic?" Homan asked. The Retriever’s vehicle, he noted, which is used to repair the trans-ocean cables that get snagged on the ocean floor, can go down to the depths and send up video shots." Covering the leak, or pumping fuel up through a long hose, the diver pointed out, could be done with the help of the submersible robot which has arms and clamps. Anyway, some wiseguy should have figured this out already, instead of waiting for Japanese experts to get here.

Haven’t they consulted Commodore Feliciano "Fil" Salonga who’s SBMA Chairman? A King’s Point graduate and once head of a shipbuilding corporation, Salonga has expertise, too. In fact, the SBMA has small skimmer vessels which ought to be useful in the soaking up operations on the spreading oil slick.

Finally, it appears that the "oil tanker" itself was not intended for open-sea operations but for close-to-shore ferrying of chemicals. Let me correct my first misimpression – it wasn’t built in Navotas, but in a small Japanese shipyard. It was constructed in 1988, and when already classified by the Japanese as "old" sold to the Philippines – just like the second-hand Japanese junk buses, perhaps, which ply EDSA.

The name was changed from New Hinase to M/T Solar I when it was registered with the Maritime Industry Authority of the DOTC. Judging from its size, it is only 988 gross tons or 602 tons deadweight, the original New Hinase, a chemical tanker, was not even intended for open sea operations, but for inshore duty, ferrying chemicals from one Japanese coastal city to another. Of course, it isn’t double-hulled either – as international practice now requires oil tankers to be.

Let us learn from our mistakes. This one was a costly mistake. We haven’t even begun to count the cost.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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