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Wanted rebels cornered

THE Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said on Tuesday that government forces were slowly gaining ground against lawless elements as fierce fighting continued in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay.

Military officials added that the rebels, who could be holding some civilians hostage, have been cornered.

AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Maj. Gen. Jose Mabanta Jr. said that soldiers were poised to enter the so-called areas of temporary stay (ATS) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to serve the arrest warrants for 11 rebels believed responsible for the series of kidnappings and ambuscades against the police and military that left at least 33 people dead.

Mabanta stressed that the Armed Forces hierarchy was making sure that the military operations were within the framework of the ceasefire mechanism to include coordination with the MILF. But according to him, government troops would push through with their task even if the MILF would not allow soldiers to enter their ATS.

“We will have to work within the ceasefire mechanism,” Mabanta said. [If the MILF denies entry of troops,] then we will have to serve justice, go in and serve.”

“That [denial of entry] cannot be because there are laws . . . that [need] to be implemented and pursued,” he added, saying that the MILF could not just simply engage government troops as they would be operating within the ceasefire mechanism.

The AFP is fighting on three fronts—in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay; Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte province; and in Al-Barka, Basilan province, where 19 Army soldiers were killed in an ambush by alleged rogue elements of the MILF.

Army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said that there were no air strikes or bombardment yesterday in Payao as the soldiers had already entered the hiding area of the lawless elements, whom they believed were holding some civilians hostage.

He added that military and police operatives were taking extra care to avoid civilian casualties during their joint operation and ensure the safety of the hostages should their enemies engage them.

The assault on the renegades’ hideout started on Monday right after the air strike. The attack was still ongoing, although the exchange of fire was no longer intense.

“They [lawless elements] were not just in one position. Slowly [the government forces] were able to stop the pockets of resistance,” Cabunoc said.

“They are cornered and they are in various fighting positions. Those fighting positions are being cleared by our government forces,” he added.

According to the Army spokesman, the enemies are pushed toward the shore where a naval blockade has been set up.

The military earlier said that it had captured three “lawless elements” after conducting air strikes in Payao.

Western Mindanao Command spokesman Lt. Col. Randy Cabangbang said that those captured were members of Abdusalam’s group. They are now in the custody of the local police.

Mabanta said that deployment and pursuit were only being done in Lanao del Norte and Payao since the military was still determining their specific objective in Al-Barka to prevent civilian casualties.

The target of the military operations was the group of alleged MILF commander Waning Abdusalam and 10 others, who are all wanted for murder, kidnapping and other crimes.

The others being pursued were Putot Jakaria, Ogis Jakaria, Talib Jail Indal, Datu Saramain Indal, Tareed Mangunda, Morsede Jalal, Harid Andaya, Pendatun Datukali, Mohmim Karim and Alnajer Sali.

Abdusalam is believed to be responsible for the abduction of naturalized American Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old son and 19-year old Filipino nephew in Zamboanga’s Tictabon island on July 12.

But according to Cabangbang, the MILF has denied that Abdulsalam belongs to their group.

Abdusalam and Jakaria have standing warrants of arrest for their involvement in the kidnapping of Italian priest Fr. Gian Carlo Bossi in 2007.

The MILF on Tuesday disowned Abdusalam. Rebel spokesman Von Al-Haq said that Abdusalam had not been an active member since 2000.

“We have no reports about him anymore,” Al-Haq added.

Operations vs. MILF
The Muslim rebel group maintained that government offensives in Payao were directed at them.

“Combined troops of the Armed Forces of the Philippines under the First Infantry Division [of the] Philippine Army intensified their attacks against the forces of the 113th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Payao in Zamboanga Sibugay,” an MILF report said, adding that more than 50 rounds of artillery strikes were fired toward the positions of the BIAF forces.

“MILF fighters held their ground and engaged the attacking government soldiers in more than two hours of firefight. The MILF Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities told its government counterpart that these attacks were blatant ceasefire violations being committed by the government. But reports said that the Government Coordinating Committee for the Cessation received the complaint lightly,” the report said.

The MILF, which is currently negotiating peace with Manila, said that the military offensives were aimed at derailing the peace talks.

Probe lapses
Aside from pursuing the lawless elements behind the series of violent attacks that led to the killing of 29 soldiers in separate areas in the southern Philippines, there should also be an investigation to determine the “operational and tactical lapses” of the AFP, Sen. Antonio Trillanes said.

He filed a resolution directing the Senate Committees on National Defense and Security; and Peace, Unification and Reconciliation to investigate the circumstances surrounding the clashes between the MILF and government troops against the backdrop of ongoing peace talks.

“Someone has to be made accountable for the deaths of our troops in Mindanao. Possible operational and tactical lapses on the part of the AFP might have led to the gruesome death of our soldiers,” added Trillanes, a former Navy officer.

According to the military officer-turned-lawmaker, senators must also look into the possible “accountability and culpability on the part of the MILF leadership for the bloodbath which transpired amidst ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the separatist group.”

Trillanes wanted to verify reports that many of the soldiers involved in the Al-Barka clash were allegedly undergoing scuba diving training for the Special Forces when they were hastily pulled out to pursue MILF rebels on behalf of the police.

The MILF claimed that government troops provoked the fighting by attacking the rebel group’s stronghold.

Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, however, denied this, saying that the military did not intrude into the Muslim rebel group’s area.

Coddlers warned
Secretary Jesse Robredo of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), meanwhile, warned those who would be caught coddling lawless elements being pursued by government forces that they would be dealt with accordingly.

“Groups coddling them (lawless elements) are equally responsible,” Robredo said.

He made it clear, however, that the government would continue peace negotiations with the mainstream MILF and at the same time go after rogue MILF members.
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