Wednesday, October 26, 2011

AFP pushes back MILF

MANILA, Philippines - Combined government forces have breached the fortified defenses of a group led by Waning Abdusalam in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay and are now pushing the militants toward the coastline where naval assets have been deployed.

The continuous fighting has displaced more than 10,000 people in the towns of Payao, Alicia and Talusan, according to provincial disaster officials.

Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., AFP spokesman, yesterday said six OV-10 aerial bombardment sorties softened the resistance of the “rogue rebels” who were subsequently dislodged from their bunkers and running trenches.

“Our ground forces met little resistance and recovered four bodies of lawless elements yesterday out of the six reported the other night,” Burgos said.

The same group targeted by the air strikes was blamed for ambushes that killed four soldiers and four policemen in the same area on Thursday last week. They were initially reported to be regular members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) but are now described by the AFP as rogue elements.

The fighting came two days after MILF fighters gunned down 19 Special Forces commandos who allegedly strayed into rebel territory on the adjacent island of Basilan.

At least 35 people have been killed in Mindanao and Basilan in a week of fighting.

Burgos said there have been reports that two of the fighters – Putot Jakaria and Ogis Jakaria – have moved from Zamboanga Sibugay to Basilan, where the military is now conducting air raids against the MILF.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Oban, meanwhile, ordered the ground forces to ensure the success of the operation following President Aquino’s directive for an “all-out justice” operation on Monday.

“I have directed the commander of Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), General (Raymundo) Ferrer, to ensure the success of the military operations there in Payao. I also tell him I expect more successes in future military operations in his area of responsibility,” Oban said after emerging from a command conference at the Wesmincom headquarters in Camp Basilio Navarro, Zamboanga City.

He said the “directive was to continue to pursue the lawless elements wherever they are, driven by intelligence work.”

He also clarified that the military is after “rebel personalities” attached with the MILF but have criminals cases, referring to the group of Abdusalam in sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan, and Abu Sayyaf militants.

Wesmincom spokesman Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang said the MILF has disowned the group of Abdusalam, based on the information submitted by the MILF ad hoc joint action group (AHJAG) to their government counterpart in the peace panel.

Results of verification for the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces showed Abdusalam is not in their records, while brothers Putot and Ogis Jakaria are tagged as notorious outlaws and kidnappers.

Civilians on the run

Zamboanga Sibugay Gov. Rommel Jalosjos said civilians affected by the air strikes are all accounted for and no one has been hurt in the military offensive.

Jalosjos, who imposed a province-wide curfew to secure his constituents, said the move was aimed at protecting civilians from diversionary attacks of the rebels in public places and vital installations.

Residents within the area of operations voluntarily evacuated and took refuge with their relatives shortly before MILF forces occupied several schools in these areas, preventing potential civilian casualties.

Jalosjos said the concentration of the government forces is in the mangrove areas of Sitio Talaib where Abdusalam and his men were holding out.

A total of 1,237 families in Zamboanga Sibugay have been affected by the air raids conducted by the military.

Adriano Fuego, Zamboanga civil defense director, said the affected families or 10,385 persons have been evacuated to safe areas.

“We are still discussing ways to provide their needs like food. Initially, they need help from their respective municipalities using their local disaster fund,” Fuego told reporters in a phone patch interview.

AFP: No letup

On Monday, OV-10s launched three bombing runs targeting the enemy position at Sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan Payao town, in preparation for the ground assault.

To further soften the defenses of the lawless group, two more aerial strikes were launched yesterday before the ground troops moved in.

Burgos said Army and police troops are now pursuing the bandits from a vantage position, towards the coastline with little resistance.

“Our ground troops, despite the terrain, are now pushing them (lawless group) towards the coastline where we have deployed some of our naval assets,” he said.

Army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said “there were no air strikes but only clearing operations against Abdusalam, the alleged brains of several kidnappings in the area.

“He is not MILF, he is a bandit and the (village) officials even had a resolution stating there is no identified MILF camp there,” he said.

Back to the drawing board

Meanwhile, the military will start talking to the ceasefire panels to run after lawless elements who may be inside the area of temporary stay of the MILF.

Burgos said they would coordinate with the AHJAG and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) to allow them to conduct pursuit operations inside MILF territory.

“We will reach that point (discussions with ceasefire panels)… that would be the subject of talks. They (MILF) should show sincerity to the ceasefire by acting on the demand of the AFO to surrender Asnawi and the other lawless elements,” he said. Laksaw-Dan Asnawi is the leader of the MILF rebels that killed 19 soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan last Oct. 18.

Burgos remains optimistic that the ceasefire mechanisms could prevent the escalation of violence once the military enters the MILF areas.

He also clarified that “there is no such thing as (destabilization) and we don’t need that this time.

“We don’t need loyalty check at this point and we’re confident there is no destabilization plot emanating from the ranks of the military,” he added, adding that the board of inquiry tasked to probe the Basilan clash may finish its initial report by weekend. – Alexis Romero, Jess Diaz

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By Jaime Laude and Roel PareƱo (The Philippine Star) Updated October 26, 2011 12:00 AM

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