Monday, October 31, 2011

Next AFP target: Al-Barka

Local execs seek prior warning, cooperation


Basilan leaders want the military to first coordinate with them before launching any combat operation, particularly in the town of Al-Barka where 19 soldiers were slaughtered on Oct. 18.

Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul said prior information would enable him and other officials to remove civilians from targeted areas and settle them in established peace zones beyond the line of fire.

“We are asking [the military] to give us enough time to move civilians out before they [go after] lawless elements,” Sakalahul said. He said the civilians would be settled in designated areas “where they can sleep and eat, and where we can easily monitor their movements.”

Sakalahul said that during the Oct. 18 military operation in Al-Barka, where 19 soldiers were killed by purported renegade members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), residents and officials alike were caught by surprise when the military began shelling Barangays Cambug, Kailih and Batu-bato.

“There was no prior advice, and we were at a loss on how to deal with the evacuation because it was so sudden,” he said, adding that the situation became so chaotic that displaced families had to occupy the roadsides.

Real culprits

Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad expressed support for Sakalahul’s appeal for prior information from the military.

Jumoad also said the military should make sure that the objects of the imminent manhunt were the real culprits, and “not just anybody, like what happened in 2007 when most of those in the [pursuit] list were not even involved in the July 10 beheading of the Marines.”

He said local officials should be tapped for assistance because they would be of help in the government’s efforts to hunt down armed groups involved in crime.

Sakalahul said he was hoping that the impending military operation in Al-Barka would not result in more collateral damage.

“There are many ways to avoid it,” he said.

During a visit to Zamboanga City last week, Gen. Eduardo Oban, the Armed Forces chief of staff, said the military was preparing for another combat operation in Al-Barka against the group responsible for the recent clash there, in which the 19 soldiers were killed.

“The directive is to continue the pursuit of lawless elements,” Oban had said. “Wherever they are, we are going to pursue them further. But then again, this should be driven by intelligence work because we are after [certain] personalities.”

‘So far, so good’

In Manila, former President Joseph Estrada on Friday backed the ongoing military operations against “lawless elements.”

“So far, so good,” he said. “We really have to rain bullets on them.”

But he continued to express mistrust of the MILF, against which he is campaigning for an all-out war.

In 2000, Estrada launched an all-out war against the secessionist group, which led to the capture of its biggest stronghold, Camp Abubakar, and several other key rebel settlements in the South.

Estrada said he would have finished off the Moro rebels and proceeded with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan in Mindanao had he not been deposed in 2001.

“I had grand plans for Mindanao as the country’s food basket,” he said. “With the armed conflict resolved, we would have focused on rehabilitation and development.”

Estrada also questioned the wisdom behind the Aquino administration’s earlier decision to give P5 million to the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute, a supposed youth group put up by the MILF.

“That money could be used for rehabilitation after they have surrendered. But for now, they’re still fighting the government so why give them money?” he told the Inquirer in Filipino, adding:

“You can never know where they would use that money. You can’t trust them.”

‘Gov’t doing its best’

As though to offset the effects of the military operations, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman visited Basilan on Friday along with Peace Adviser Teresita Deles and Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo.

Sakalahul quoted Soliman as saying that the government was doing its best to bring criminals to justice.

“May namatay, dapat may managot (There were people killed; someone should be held accountable),” she said further.

During the visit, Soliman turned over P2 million to Basilan Gov. Jum Akbar as assistance to the families displaced by the recent military operations.

She also handed P10,000 to each of the families of the rubber plantation workers killed in the ambush by armed men in Sumisip town on Oct. 24. Those injured received P5,000 each.

In Barangay Naga-naga in Alicia, Zamboanga Sibugay province, Soliman, Robredo and Deles visited an evacuation center and held a dialogue with the residents displaced by the recent military operations.

Soliman said the residents could count on the immediate release of cash grants from the government’s conditional cash transfer program, “so it can help you with your needs.”

She oversaw the distribution of relief goods to each family, consisting of three kilos of rice, three cans of sardines, soy sauce, cooking oil and packs of instant noodles.

Soliman said the Department of Social Welfare and Development would work to ease the worrisome health conditions in the evacuation center.

‘Pool your efforts’

Robredo told the local officials of Alicia and Payao, also in Zamboanga Sibugay, to pool their efforts to help the displaced residents.

“It is important that the evacuees feel the government’s efforts to help them,” Robredo said.

Payao Mayor Joeper Mendoza said that in his town alone, at least 2,368 families had been displaced since last week.

He said many of the families were staying with relatives, making it difficult for aid agencies to deliver relief assistance to them.

Payao municipal councilor Mechana Abdul said classes remained suspended in schools in certain barangays.

Senior Insp. Rolando Bartolome, Payao police director, said civilians had volunteered to help the town’s 23 policemen patrol the town center and its perimeter.

“We have to be strong and show unity and resolve to protect our town,” he said. With reports from Christian V. Esguerra in Manila and Bobby Lagsa, Inquirer Mindanao

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First posted 1:11 am | Saturday, October 29th, 2011

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