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MILF says AFP preparing to attack in Basilan

Claiming the military is preparing to attack in Basilan, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on Monday said its forces there are preparing to defend themselves.

In an article posted on its website, the Moro rebel group claimed signs point to a possible attack against the MILF forces led by Dan "Laksaw" Asnawi, who it described as the second highest MILF military commander in Basilan.

"We will defend ourselves," Abu Majid, an MILF provincial political officer based in Basilan, said.

He also said Asnawi is not a criminal, adding Asnawi was a "victim" of an unjust justice system where he was linked to the beheading of soldiers in 2007. "I hope the government will rethink their decision to attack our forces in the island," Majid said.

Promptly, the Armed Forces denied that it will launch an attack on the MILF ATS (area of temporary stay) in Basilan, insisting that whatever operations against armed groups in Al Barka town will be properly coordinated.

"Unang-una, meron namang... ceasefire mechanism. Hindi basta papasok sa kanila without coordination... may coordination naman lagi," said military information chief Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos.

The article posted on the MILF website also noted that the military denied any impending assault against the MILF in Basilan, saying the continuing deployment of troops in the island has nothing to do with the October 18 clash.

The article cited earlier reports quoting Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesman of the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command, as saying the military had been planning the deployment of more troops even before the Al-Barka incident.

"We have been long planning to deploy an infantry brigade in Basilan, but it’s only a headquarters brigade, not a brigade with three battalions," the MILF quoted Cabangbang as saying.

The clash

On Oct. 18, nineteen Army soldiers, including four junior officers, were killed after a six-hour firefight with armed men led by Asnawi in Al-Barka town. Nine rebels were also killed in the clash.

The military said the armed men were reinforced by members of the MILF, despite a ceasefire between the government and the secessionist group in connection with the ongoing peace negotiations.

But the MILF claimed it was the military that violated the truce by launching an attack within their area of temporary stay (ATS).

The ATS is a place designated by the government and the MILF Coordinating Committees on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) where forces of the secessionist group can stay to prevent encounters with troops pursuing members of the bandit Abu Sayyaf group.

However, the military insisted that the MILF violated the ceasefire by participating in the clash between the soldiers and the armed group, believed to be members of the Abu Sayyaf.

The Army leadership has relieved from their posts, 4th Special Forces Battalion chief Lt. Col. Leo Peña and Special Operations Task Force Basilan commander Col. Alexander Macario.

President Benigno Aquino III, meanwhile, has likewise refused to declare an all-out war against the Moro rebel group. Instead, he said that he will pursue "all-out justice" to address the successive attacks by some elements of the MILF against the military.

For her part, presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles has maintained that despite the Basilan clash, preparations for the resumption of peace negotiations in November will continue.

Best fighters?

The MILF said its fighters in Basilan are the best in terms of number of tanks destroyed in a week, and the worst casualties suffered by the military in combat in Mindanao.

In 2006, the MILF claimed it destroyed at least seven tanks in a week of fighting. In 2007, it claimed to kill 23 soldiers in a day of fighting. — RSJ/HS, GMA News
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