Kato men hiding in refugee camps, says military spokesmanBy Edwin Fernandez, Jeoffrey Maitem
COTABATO CITY, Philippines—Dispersed after the military overran their stronghold on Tuesday, some of renegade Moro rebel commander Ameril Umra Kato’s men are now hiding in evacuation centers in towns in Maguindanao, a military spokesperson said Wednesday.
“Some of them are now in the evacuation centers. But by all means, we will get them to face the consequences of their acts,” Col. Prudencio Asto, spokesperson for the military’s 6th Infantry Division, said.
Maguindanao social welfare officials could not be reached for comment on Asto’s claims.
But Asto quickly added that legitimate evacuees seeking refuge in the towns of Shariff Aguak, Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi, Datu Hoffer, and Ampatuan had nothing to worry about as the military would not be indiscriminate in its hunt for Kato’s men inside evacuation centers.
He said the military would coordinate with social workers to determine who the legitimate evacuees were and expose the members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) pretending to be refugees displaced by the 10 days of fighting between government forces and Kato’s followers.
Local authorities said some 40,000 people had been displaced by the violence.
Asked where the other BIFF members and officials, including Kato, could be, Asto said they fled into the 220,000-hectare Liguasan Marsh, which straddles the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.
“They scattered into small groups,” he said, addin, “Our efforts to hunt these rebels continue.”
He said a military contingent headed by Col. Edmundo Pangilinan would continue its “surgical operations” against the BIFF “not far away from the main camp.”
Asto said that in the meantime, soldiers have been deployed to secure Camp Omar and prevent BIFF forces from retaking it.
“We have inserted additional troops in Camp Omar so the rebels can no longer go back,” he said.
He said the military recommended turning the four-square-kilometer Camp Omar, which occupies parts of the municipalities of Upi, Datu Saudi, Datu Hoffer and Datu Unsay, into an agricultural zone.
“The area is very productive. The local government in three adjoining towns can plant rubber, oil palm or high-value crops there,” he said.
Asto said the fall of Camp Omar could spell peace to people living near it.
Von Al Haq, spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said in a separate interview that they would help the military run after Kato and his BIFF forces by providing information on their possible whereabouts. Kato and his group broke away from the MILF in 2010 over a disagreement concerning peace talks with the government.
Al Haq said the MILF was also willing to reposition its forces to give the military more leeway in the hunt for BIFF members inside the Liguasan wetlands.
He said, however, that the MILF might not be able to deploy its forces alongside government soldiers unless in the absence of a prior agreement to this effect.
“But rest assured, we will not let Kato’s men hide in our camps,” he said.
Kato is former MILF commander and many of his men also have relatives in the MILF.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, meanwhile, said he has asked five Maguindanao mayors to explain their reported absence from their towns when BIFF forces started their attacks on Aug. 5.
Robredo said Bai Sandra Sinsuat Ampatuan of Saydona town; Reshal Santiago Ampatuan of Datu Unsay; Bai Bongbong Midtimbang Ampatuan of Datu Hoffer; Datu Saudi Sheam II B. Ampatuan of Saudi Ampatuan; and Kanor D. Ampatuan of Salibo had until Friday to explain.
“Most of the time, these people are not in their offices. They make their houses in Cotabato City as their offices,” Robredo said.
He said the mayors could face administrative charges for abandoning their posts if they failed to prove the reports wrong.
Datu Saudi Mayor Saudi Sean Ampatuan III said he did not abandon his post at the height of the fighting and that he personally led efforts to assist the evacuees.
The other mayors could not be reached immediately for comment.