President Benigno Aquino III on Monday declared not an all-out war but “all-out justice” for 19 soldiers massacred last week on Basilan.
The President also announced that his administration would continue with its peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which was set to begin in Malaysia next month.
“We will try to push the negotiations forward to address the roots of the conflict,” he said.
Reading a prepared statement before a national television audience, Mr. Aquino stressed that the target of an “intensified” military operation he had ordered were members of the Abu Sayyaf, not the MILF.
The President said the government had asked for help and was now getting it from the MILF in its bid to arrest the 10 Abu Sayyaf bandits responsible for the killings and now located and “contained” in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay.
“The mailed fist of the State will be brought to bear upon them so that justice may be served. There is no question the State will find them; the only remaining question is when,” he said.
Mr. Aquino rejected calls for the government to wage an all-out war against the MILF, which had earlier admitted that its men were responsible for the massacre of the 19 Special Forces troops on October 18 in Al-Barka, Basilan.
“We will not pursue all-out war; we will instead pursue all-out justice. All-out war is indiscriminate and borne out of danger. All-out justice is sober and fair; it is based on the rule of law, and leads to lasting peace,” the President said.
He said his decisions on the worst losses the military suffered in years “cannot be borne out of ignorance … but have to be based on facts.”
Explaining his order for intensified operations, Mr. Aquino said later in news conference that the government was after 10 members of the Abu Sayyaf bandits led by its leader Ibrahim Malat Sulayman and Dan Aswani.
He identified Sulayman as a “notorious criminal wanted for nine counts of murder” while Aswani was an escaped fugitive wanted for the beheading last year of Marine soldiers in Basilan.
The President said this bandit group had been located in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay, and “in response to the local government unit’s appeal to free them from criminal activities of these individuals, they are now contained—about 150 or so of them—in that area.”
“We’re trying to isolate them from even the others who joined them. But even if that’s not the case and the negotiations for them to leave the area do not happen, we still have to enforce the law and go after the 10. And those who help the 10, they will be guilty of abetting known criminals,” he said.
Mr. Aquino noted that the weekend attacks against the police and military in Zamboanga Sibugay “were diversionary to dilute our efforts at arresting those people who are isolated in Payao.”
He also said that the information he got on the attack that killed five rubber plantation workers “might be related to extortion activities.”
Told that the MILF had stated in its website that the rebel group was responsible for attacking the 19 soldiers in Basilan, the President said he did not view the MILF website as he made clear that there were specific arrest warrants for the 10 Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Asked whether the government would engage the MILF should it coddle the criminals, he said: “We are targeting certain people, those who will block our forces in pursuit of legitimate operations cannot be differentiated from those we are after.”
“We send the message to the MILF that we are not out to get them but if some of their members participate, there is no exemption,” he said.
Mr. Aquino disclosed that actually the MILF was now helping the government in going after the Abu Sayyaf bandits.
“There are ongoing efforts to tell them precisely what our intentions are so there will be no missteps, no doubts—that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” he said.
Asked what the MILF response was, the President said: “I cannot reveal all this to you but there is cooperation already in terms of certain personalities. They will not be a problem in effecting the arrest of the people in the Order of Battle.”
The President said that the military would make sure civilians would be safe from the ongoing operations.
“While it is tempting for the government to join the chorus in calling for blood, we believe that such a course of action is not appropriate at this point. We are not interested in knee-jerk actions that will jeopardize our efforts to address the roots of conflict in the region,” he said.