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Cooperate or stand aside

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang called on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front yesterday to “cooperate or stand aside” as the military conducted operations against criminal elements, including MILF commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi who has been declared a fugitive from justice.

MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar, however, said they would not agree to the demand to surrender Asnawi unless the government follows the mechanisms agreed upon by the two peace panels.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte reminded the MILF that providing protection to lawless elements and fugitives from justice was against the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Islamic rebel group.

“We have made it clear from the onset that this is not against the MILF as an entity but against lawless elements. Either they cooperate or stand aside and let our law enforcers do their job,” Valte said in a press briefing.

She said it would be up to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to conduct select and targeted strikes against lawless elements in line with President Aquino’s directive for “all-out justice” for the 19 soldiers slain in Al-Barka, Basilan last Oct. 18.

Members of the Special Forces were out to serve arrest warrants on Asnawi, MILF leader Long Malat, and Abu Sayyaf group leader Furuji Indaman outside the MILF’s camp or “area of temporary stay (ATS)” in Sitio Baquisong, Cambug village, when they were met with gunfire by Abu Sayyaf bandits aided by MILF fighters.

As regard claims that the charges against Asnawi were trumped up, Valte said “there is no other recourse but to defend himself in the court.”

She said the peace process with the MILF would continue but amending the Constitution to accommodate the Muslim rebel group’s demand for a sub-state would be unlikely.

“We have always been of the position that this (Charter change) is not a priority of President Aquino under his administration. It will be up to the panels to discuss (issues about a possible peace agreement) during the informal talks,” she said.

My brother’s keeper

Jaafar told ABS-CBN News Channel that they are not harboring Asnawi and they cannot surrender him now “because although he is accused of something, that has to be proven.”

“For all you know, maybe he did not do that or he was not part of that. We are not harboring anybody. In the case of Ansawi, this should undergo process to determine if he is guilty or not,” he said.

When reminded by ABS-CBN anchor Twink Macaraig that surrendering Asnawi would allow him to undergo trial, Jaafar said: “But he can be tried according to the mechanisms of the peace process approved by the government and the MILF.”

“This is not an ordinary problem because we have peace talks and we are discussing how we can solve it peacefully,” he added.

In a separate phone patch interview with defense reporters, Jaafar stressed that Asnawi is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“There must be due process and before the conclusion of the due process, he must not be condemned as a criminal,” he said. “So why is the government, you know, forcing the issue that he must be surrendered when he is not yet proven guilty?”

Jaafar said the MILF leadership remains committed to follow the ceasefire mechanisms but is ready to defend themselves if attacked by government forces.

He said accusations of ceasefire violations would have to be validated by the ceasefire panels of the two sides. Once the allegations have been validated, the two sides would work for the surrender or arrest of the person.

MILF spokesman Von Al Haq said Sammy Almansur, chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the armed wing of the MILF, ordered his men on the ground “to be in defensive position” as they brace for attacks that might be waged by government forces in its territory in Al-Barka, Basilan.

The military has threatened to pursue law enforcement operations in the area if they are not surrendered.

Al Haq said the MILF was not keen on surrendering its men to the government.

“That can’t be, that’s difficult under the process. You cannot surrender your friend, your brother to the enemy,” he said.

Al Haq said the AFP was not expected to surrender to the MILF soldiers who committed crimes.

Asnawi was described as the “second highest MILF military commander in the island province” and the MILF claimed he was a victim of an “unjust justice system.”

MILF leaders said Asnawi had nothing to do with the beheading of 10 of 14 Marines killed in fighting in July 2007, noting that the MILF fighters were responsible for the deaths, but the beheadings were done by Abu Sayyaf members.

AFP: Abdusalam camp under control

Meanwhile, the Army leadership said it would be highly improbable for Waning Abdusalam to return to his captured lair in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province because the place is now under the control of the military and police.

Maj. Harold Cabunoc, Army spokesman, issued this assurance in response to several reports that Abdusalam and his group of about 300 to 400 have regrouped in the mountains for a planned counterattack to retake their highly fortified camp that has fallen into the hands of the military and police at Sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan.

“It’s highly improbable. But just the same, we are continuously verifying the report and the source of that information,” Cabunoc said.

Combined military troops are now occupying Abdusalam’s enclave following almost four days of air and ground assault that left two soldiers and about 27 lawless elements killed.

The joint military assault was launched two weeks ago by the military leadership in response to the series of attacks staged by the lawless group in Zamboanga Sibugay on military and police targets, leaving four soldiers and four policemen dead.

There were intelligence reports that among those wounded in the air and ground military assaults was Abdusalam himself, who turned out to have escaped from the area before his followers were finally overwhelmed by the assaulting troops from the Army’s Scout Rangers (SR), Special Forces (SF) and Light Reaction Company (LRC).

On Monday evening, several residents as well as local officials in Payao, as reported by ABS-CBN News, claimed that Abdusalam and his fresh recruits have converged in the mountains of Zamboanga Sibugay and are planning a counterattack to retake their camp.

While most of the assault infantry soldiers have already returned to their camps, the Western Mindanao Command (Wescom) deployed a sizable force to thwart any plans by the lawless group to return and deny other lawless groups from Basilan to establish their presence in the area.

Cabunoc, citing ground reports, said more than half of the 100 followers of Abdusalam were neutralized in the combined military and police operations in Payao.

“Our troops have consolidated and are now holding the area. We are planning to establish a permanent patrol base at the said place,” Cabunoc said. – Alexis Romero, Jaime Laude, Roel Pareño - By Aurea Calica (Philstar News Service,




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