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Warning: MILF abusing ‘area of temporary stay’

Senators on Tuesday warned Malacañang that the nation risked “flirting with the status of a failed state” if Moro separatist rebels are allowed to abuse the so-called “area of temporary stay” (ATS) that could constitute a diminution of the nation’s sovereignty.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that government forces should be allowed to enter an ATS, a zone purportedly delineated as a safe haven for guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) under a peace agreement, “if required by military necessity.”

The Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law (Republic Act No. 9871) defines “military necessity” as “employing measures which are otherwise indispensable to achieve a legitimate aim of the conflict and are not otherwise prohibited by international humanitarian law,” according to Santiago.

“Military necessity trumps any ceasefire agreement. The murder of 19 soldiers could have been avoided, if the Philippine military and police were allowed to apply the doctrine of fresh pursuit. This rule allows government soldiers to cross jurisdictional lines in fresh pursuit of rebel guerrillas who have committed war crimes,” she said.

Santiago warned that if the rule against invasion of ATS continued to be observed, “the Philippine military would be so severely hampered in its law enforcement functions that the Philippines would be flirting with the status of a failed state.”

“If the MILF argues that the attacks were carried out by rogue or renegade guerrillas, then that would be a confession that the MILF leaders have no effective command and control. In that case, there would be no point continuing peace talks with them,” she said.

How to elude arrest

“Ordinary criminals, terrorists and sometimes even syndicates seek refuge in these areas,” Senator Gregorio Honasan pointed out in a phone interview. “When confronted by government forces, they claim to be legitimate rebels and bring up the peace talks to escape arrest.”

There are many places throughout Mindanao declared as ATS where MILF rebels are allowed by the government to occupy, according to Honasan.

Rebels’ total control

Senator Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate national defense and security committee, traced the ATS to an agreement signed between the government and the separatist group during the Fidel V. Ramos administration.

But Senator Antonio Trillanes IV contends that it was then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who gave this concession.

Both Lacson and Trillanes, however, agree that the government may have made a mistake in agreeing to the ATS arrangement with the MILF.

“The ATS was one of the MILF’s demands stated in an agreement signed in Indonesia. It kept the peace all right, but only as a palliative. The effects are what we are suffering now,” Lacson said in a text message.

Trillanes, in a separate text message, blamed Arroyo for the deal. “Our soldiers have been paying for (her decision) since then,” he said.

Honasan said the government should now initiate talks that would clarify the scope and limits of an ATS.

“Let’s define what is the prerogative of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the government in these areas. Let’s clarify whether the ATS means the land covered is under the complete control of the rebel group we are talking peace with right now,” said the former Army colonel.

Trillanes said the ATS should be “one of the issues to be renegotiated in the ongoing peace talks.”

Carving out patrimony

There are suspicions that Dan Asnawi and five of his men who led the Oct. 18 ambush at Al-Barka in Basilan province that killed 19 Special Forces soldiers are hiding in the ATS given to the MILF on the island.

Abu Sayyaf members Furuji Indama and Long Malat who are said to be involved in the ambush are also believed to be in MILF custody and are allegedly hiding in the Basilan ATS.

“While this issue is probably best left to constitutionalists and lawyers, there remains the question of why we would allow rebels to carve out a piece of our national patrimony,” Honasan said.

“As things have turned out now, what is to prevent similar occurrences or abuses in the future,” he said. “The benefit of the doubt must be resolved in favor of national patrimony, in favor of national interest.”

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III warned that the situation could aggravate if the government gave in to pressure to take away the ATS from the MILF.

“Precisely, their claim of a territory is why they are a rebel group, because they have control of a territory. And for them to lose control over that, we need to go to war against them,” he said.

“But we need to negotiate for a comprehensive solution to the problem. Nobody gave them the territory but the fact is that they do control a territory. If we want to dispossess them of a territory, there could be bloodshed,” Pimentel said.

Humanitarian law

Loretta Ann Rosales, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, told the Inquirer that the MILF might have violated the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Tripoli Agreement on Peace in Mindanao when it attacked soldiers in Basilan.

“There is a strong possibility these laws were violated because I do understand that there is a ceasefire agreement,” Rosales said in a phone interview. “Because you’re negotiating for peace, you don’t just shoot at people who are on the opposite side.”

Rosales cited possible violations of the 2002 Implementing Guidelines on the Humanitarian, Rehabilitation and Development Aspects of the 2001 GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace, particularly Article IV on the Respect for Human Rights and Observance of the IHL.

She stressed that the reference for these possible violations would be the ceasefire agreement, which bound both parties from firing at each other and in resolving conflicts through negotiations.

Rosales said reports that the MILF executed soldiers it had captured alive, if proven to be true, constituted a violation of the Geneva Convention. With a report from TJ Burgonio

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