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Hunt continues for MILF leader

The military on Wednesday said it will continue to hunt down a fugitive Muslim insurgent accused of beheading Marines after the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) refused to surrender Dan Laksaw Asnawi.

“It is the mandate of the Army and the PNP (Philippine National Police) to run after criminals through the right process,” so “pursuit operations against criminals and bandits” will proceed even without the cooperation of the MILF, said Army chief Lieutenant General Arturo Ortiz.

The standoff over Asnawi hangs over the peace talks that are expected to resume today (Thursday) in Malaysia.

Asnawi was among the rebels involved in a clash that killed 14 Marines in the remote Basilan town of Al-Barka in 2007. Ten of the Marines were later found beheaded. Asnawi was arrested and charged for the beheadings but escaped from a Basilan jail in 2009.

Nineteen troops were killed last October 18 in Al-Barka in a failed attempt to arrest Asnawi in the biggest military loss in years. Asnawi is suspected of leading the ambush.

The incident sparked calls for President Aquino to break a truce and order an offensive against the rebels. The President rejected the calls and decided to pursue talks and ordered a probe to find out what sparked the ambush.

PNP spokesperson Chief Superintendent Agrimero Cruz Jr. said Asnawi is believed to be still in the province. But it was not clear if he was hiding in Al-Barka, a portion of which MILF rebels claim as their informal territory or “area of temporary stay (ATS).”

Cruz said the operations for Asnawi’s capture would still be led by the Armed Forces, with the PNP taking only a secondary role.

“Our concern is only to serve the arrest warrant and to conduct the investigation into his [Asnawi’s] case,” Cruz said.

Military officials are considering the deployment of at least 100 more soldiers to Basilan, said military spokesperson Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos.

“We will uphold the law and arrest these criminal elements. The MILF is not a target but if its members will provide sanctuary or coddle these lawless elements, then they will become legitimate targets,” said Colonel Dickson Hermoso, who heads the military office monitoring the peace talks.

“It is very clear that no one should be above the law and that includes the MILF,” Hermoso said.

Ortiz said the Army has filed a complaint against the MILF for “ceasefire violations and for coddling criminals” before the joint ceasefire committee, and through the committee has demanded that the MILF surrender Asnawi and Long Malat, a notorious criminal that it said facilitated Asnawi’s escape from jail in 2009.

The military has accused MILF rebels of reinforcing Malat’s group during the Oct. 18 encounter which it said occurred four kilometers away from an MILF-influenced community.

It also accused the MILF and the Asnawi group of murdering six soldiers who were captured alive and of committing mutilation and looting the slain soldiers’ personal belongings.

The MILF has refused to give up Asnawi. MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar denied Asnawi’s involvement in the 2007 beheadings. He said that under existing ceasefire rules, any lawbreaking guerrilla should be punished by the rebel group and not the government.

Hermoso countered that the rebels were under an obligation to surrender members accused of crimes or outlaws who seek refuge in their strongholds under a 2002 agreement.

The PNP’s Cruz said they would not take the MILF’s position at face value.

“It’s not like out of the blue we will just accept that he’s innocent. We will give him his day in court,” he said.

Meanwhile, MILF spokesperson for military affairs Von al Haq, said he saw “something positive” in the talks today in Kuala Lumpur, even though it is “only an executive meeting.”

“We are expecting them to discuss issues surrounding the Al-Barka incident and most likely the question on coordination and hopefully, other issues that will open up to a real formal talks,” he said.

A lot of statements have come out but have not necessarily answered the question “of what really happened” in Al-Barka on Oct. 18, he said. With Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao, and AP

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