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Full-blown war with MILF looms

A full-blown war between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front rebels looms as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Monday declared that military and police operations would continue against rogue members of the MILF and other “lawless elements,” an apparent catchphrase recently made popular by Malacañang.

Responding to the government declaration, the MILF said that it was ready to fight back if attacked.

Col. Arnulfo Burgos, the AFP spokesman and the chief of the military’s Public Affairs Office, said that there would be no let-up in the military and police campaign against criminals in compliance with an order from President Benigno Aquino 3rd to give “all-out justice” for the 19 soldiers and policemen killed in Al-Barka town, Basilan province, in southern Mindanao in mid-October.

“Law enforcement operations jointly conducted with the PNP in critical areas in Mindanao would continue and will be further enhanced in the coming days as we pursue the directive of the President and Commander in Chief for an all-out justice and for intensified operations against all criminal elements. In reference to our President’s directive, these ongoing operations are intended for lawless elements only, not the MILF,” Burgos added.

“However, if the MILF coddles or provides sanctuary to these lawless elements, they will become legitimate targets too of law-enforcement operations,” he said.

The MILF, through spokesman Von Al Haq, also on Monday said that its fighters were under orders to be on a defensive position but ready to fight if attacked by government forces.

“We are ready, we are not afraid. What we are afraid of is another displacement of innocent civilians. There is no problem for our combatants because they are armed and, with due respect, it is their duty to defend themselves and the civilian majority,” Al Haq added.

According to Al Haq, Sammy Almansur, the chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed
Forces, has given the orders placing the MILF rogue rebels on the defensive position.

When asked how the MILF would be able to stand its ground against the military’s might, Almansur said that they have many ways to defend themselves,

He reiterated the MILF’s earlier position that they would not give up MILF Commander Laksaw Asnawi, the subject of a military operation in Basilan at the time of the ambush of the 19 soldiers and policemen, saying that the issue has political considerations.

Asnawi has a standing warrant for various high crimes, including the 2007 beheading of Marine soldiers, also in Al-Barka.

He had been arrested in the aftermath of the 2007 massacre but managed to bolt the Basilan provincial jail, along with more than two dozen inmates, in December 2009.

Burgos gave assurances though that the military would only operate in accordance with the ceasefire mechanism and in coordination with the Joint Coordination Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities.

“The AFP has to be dynamic, responsive and proactive. Realignment of security forces and redeployment of units happen periodically and may be done anytime with the fluidity of the threat environment that the AFP is confronting. Your soldiers will continue to confront the threats to our free way of life through the relentless conduct of responsive and sustained security operations,” Burgos added.

But Al Haq said that the MILF is unfazed by threats of the military to surround the entire Basilan area.

“That is immaterial to us whether they have surrounded [the area] or not because our men there are the natives. They know what they [the military] are doing, where they [soldiers] would surface, they know, where the [soldiers] would pass, they know. That is the advantage if you are an inhabitant of the area,” he added.

Despite that commitment to peace, the government also on Monday assured that it would not allow foreign influence in stalled peace negotiations with the MILF.

Deputy spokesman Abigail Valte gave the assurance in response to concerns raised by some lawmakers that Malaysia might intervene in the talks.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said that the peace talks with the MILF should be held in the Philippines, not in Malaysia, to avoid foreign intervention.

At the same time, former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. questioned Malaysia’s leadership in the International Monitoring Team while it also functions as facilitator in the talks.

Valte said that the issue on the venue for the talks has been addressed by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, adding that both parties are yet to discuss the substantive issues.
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