Thursday, October 20, 2011

Philippines -War looms in Mindanao

AFP presses hunt for soldiers’ killers, MILF vows to fight if attacked

WAR seemed likely to erupt in Mindanao after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched a major operation to capture Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels who recently mowed down 19 soldiers in Al-Barka town, Basilan province, with the two sides accusing each other of violating the ceasefire agreement they had entered into.

President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Thursday ruled out an all-out war against the MILF, but Army Lieutenant Col. Randolph Cabangbang, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom), said that the military would go after the rebels who killed the soldiers.

“There is an operation right now against them. They murdered our soldiers and that is no longer covered by the ceasefire agreement because it is purely a criminal act,” Cabangbang said.

But MILF spokesman Von Al-Haq warned that there would be war if government forces attacked any of their strongholds in the province, located just several nautical miles from Zamboanga City.

“If they attack MILF positions, then there could be war because our forces will have to defend themselves from aggression,” Haq said.

“We are not at fault here. The military violated the ceasefire agreement. They know that there is an existing ceasefire agreement, yet the military broke this truce and launch an operation in our area,” he added.

Cabangbang, however, maintained that the soldiers were ambushed far from the so-called area of temporary stay of the MILF.

The Armed Forces and the joint ceasefire committee of both the government and MILF peace panels are now investigating the clash that killed 19 soldiers and five rebels on Tuesday.

“There is an investigation now. The (Office of the) Inspector General is investigating the incident,” Cabangbang said.

Rebel leaders said that government troops stormed an MILF encampment in the village of Cambug, but security officials claimed that rebels ambushed soldiers sent to the area—a known stronghold of the Muslim rebel group—to verify the presence of armed men.

Despite the heavy loss, President Aquino ruled out an all-out war against the MILF and threatened to sack military officials over the incident.

“Are we advocating an all-out war? (Will) that redound (to) an improvement to the situation? I think if you heard my speech earlier, let’s learn from the lessons of the past. War? No one will benefit from it,” Mr. Aquino told reporters after a lavish and colorful commemoration of the 67th Leyte Gulf Landing in Palo, Leyte province. The event was attended by US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Tomas Jr. and Japanese Ambassador to Manila Toshinao Urabe.

According to the President, he would hold a command conference today at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City to discuss the Basilan incident.

“It is better we conduct an investigation first. Know how the incident took place. Who was remiss? Who abused their authorities? Once you have gathered the details, that by itself will guide you to what course of action to take. If we jump to conclusions without the facts, that’s very irresponsible,” President Aquino said.

“I am not happy. I want to know everything. After that, maybe we can relieve some commanders. We want to correct their mistakes. I want to listen from their learned lessons from the Sulu incident and what they failed to implement that caused this Basilan incident,” he added.

According to Mr. Aquino, he believes that not all the people in the WestMinCom are at fault.

Suspend peace talks
Lawmakers also on Thursday urged President Aquino to suspend peace negotiations with the MILF until those involved in the massacre of 19 soldiers surrendered and faced justice.

Rep. Rodolfo Biazon of Muntinlupa City (Metro Manila), chairman of the House committee on national defense, said that MILF leaders should hand over to the authorities those who were involved in the bloodbath if they really wanted peace.

“Suspend the peace talks immediately. Kailangang papanagutin muna ang mga nasa likod ng pagkamatay ng mga sundalo natin bago ang peace talks (Those behind the killing of our soldiers must be held accountable before the peace talks resume),” Biazon said.

Rep. Romeo Acop of Antipolo City (Rizal province), a former police official, echoed Biazon’s call, saying that the situation should be assessed before peace talks could be resumed. He added that the government was complying with the truce agreement, but the MILF was not.

Assistant Majority Leader Sherwin Tugna of CIBAC party-list said that the “killings are not justified.”

“The Philippines is a sovereign country with only one government. We only have one military force and we will defend our territory and sovereignty against any group who wants to remove any territory from our sovereignty,” he added.

But Rep. Simeon Datumanong of Maguindanao province expressed fears that chaos and breakdown of peace and order might follow the suspension of peace talks.

Keep talking
A Roman Catholic bishop, meanwhile, said that the government should not stop talking peace with the MILF.

“Continue the peace talks and don’t get tired, so that peace and harmony will be attained,” Bishop Martin Jumoad of Basilan advised, pointing out that the encounter should not disrupt the peace process that aimed to end the decades-long armed conflict in Mindanao.

The prelate also condemned the deadly clash.

“It is always painful when fellow Filipinos kill each other,” he said.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said also on Thursday that the government might be forced to declare an all-out war against the MILF if it continued to provoke the military.

He added that Tuesday’s carnage was not an isolated incident, since the Muslim rebel group had launched similar violent incidents in the past.

The senator said that while the Basilan incident should not be taken lightly, a vicious battle with the MILF might worsen an already-fragile situation.

“In all honesty, I don’t think the country should even abandon the peace efforts . . . but we should look at the situation as an opportunity to push forward not to backward,” Pimentel added.

The Basilan incident should prompt government to review its handling of the MILF, according to Sen. Francis Pangilinan.

“We urge the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) peace panel to review its current track to the path of peace and rethink its handling of the MILF given this latest unfortunate incident. It appears that the approach needs a serious review. We cannot allow the MILF to dictate the terms and conditions of the peace process. This latest incident is a major setback in the efforts to secure a just and honorable peace,” Pangilinan said.

“While we will not jump into the fray and call on a suspension of the talks, given this latest incident, the GRP should not rule out the option of suspending the talks if we find the MILF explanation and its subsequent acts to address the matter as unacceptable,” he added.

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