Philippine Air Force (PAF) planes pounded for a second straight day Tuesday a suspected stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in an air and ground operation that has prompted the evacuation of some 14,000 people, officials said.
General Eduardo Oban, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, flew to Zamboanga City to direct air and ground operations against MILF “rogue elements,” a day after President Benigno Aquino III ordered “all-out” justice for 19 soldiers slaughtered in Basilan province on October 18.
“I am here to translate directives of the President into operational goals,” Oban told reporters during a visit Tuesday to wounded soldiers in Zamboanga City.
He stressed that the targets of the military offensive were “lawless elements” in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province.
Oban also presided over a regional command conference and reminded soldiers to strictly adhere to the rules of engagement and to respect human rights.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said at least 1,100 families, or 5,500 people, had been evacuated in Zamboanga Sibugay. She said that another 1,700 families, or 8,500 people, had fled their homes in Basilan.
Soliman said the evacuees were in makeshift encampments and were being given food packs.
“We are prepared to ensure the basic needs of civilians and make sure that the life they lead is undertaken close to normal. That way, they will recover faster,” she told reporters.
Colonel Arnulfo Burgos Jr., AFP spokesperson, said there would be no letup in the air and ground offensive even after the MILF disowned a notorious kidnap leader who is the subject of the military assault.
Burgos said PAF OV-10 attack planes made two sorties on Tuesday after making three sorties the day before. No new casualties were reported as of press time.
On Monday, two soldiers were killed while four others were wounded while at least six outlaws were killed and about 40 others believed wounded, Burgos said.
Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City, said four gunmen were killed and an undetermined number of others were wounded in the bombing run. He said three others were captured.
MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq yesterday protested the government action.
“Our men were being targeted. What they are doing is launching attacks in the guise of running after kidnappers and other lawless elements. But the actual targets are our men. They have done this before,” he told reporters.
Al Haq said that as a result of the offensive, a visit of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team had been postponed.
The MILF spokesperson also accused the military of using poison gas. He said MILF fighters were complaining of itchy skins after the air strikes.
Oban denied the charge. “We don’t use napalm,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, the MILF, through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), told their military counterparts that Waning Abdusalam, one of the objects of the offensive, was no longer a member.
The MILF also claimed that the Jakaira brothers, Putot and Ogis, who are also wanted for kidnapping, had fled to Basilan.
The AFP on Saturday demanded that the MILF turn over Abdusalam and the Jakairas.
“(The MILF said) Waning Abdusalam is no longer in their record. That means he is no longer MILF. The Jakaria brothers who are notorious outlaws and kidnappers, according to the text message from BIAF (Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces), are now hiding in Basilan,” Burgos said.
Burgos said the MILF’s admission that Abdusalam was no longer part of the group meant that the MILF should stop attacking government forces involved in the Zamboanga Sibugay assault.
“They (MILF) can no longer accuse us of violating the ceasefire agreement,” he said.
Burgos said ground troops were encountering “continuous resistance” from the outlaws in the rough terrain.
He said the MILF also had not responded to the AFP’s demand to surrender rebel leaders Dan Asnawi, Long Malat and Furuji Indama who led the ambush in Al-Barka, Basilan, on October 18 that killed 19 Army Special Forces soldiers and wounded 14 others.
Show of good faith
Lawmakers on Tuesday urged the MILF to show good faith by surrendering the perpetrators of the October 18 massacre.
Cavite Representative Joseph Abaya said during the “Ugnayan sa Batasan” forum that capturing Asnawi and his men would be proof of the MILF’s seriousness in negotiating for a peace pact.
He said Asnawi’s “ultimate neutralization or his ultimate arrest” was a critical goal.
Western Samar Representative Mel Senen Sarmiento said that the President had done his part in “confidence building” in the peace negotiations and the ball was clearly in the hands of the MILF.
“I don’t think they (MILF) should be coddling wanted criminals. They cannot go to the MILF protected areas whenever they are cornered by the military,’’ Sarmiento said.
Local execs involved
Interior Secretary Jesse M. Robredo on Tuesday said he believed some local officials were involved in lawless activities in Mindanao, including last week’s rebel attacks.
He said the Department of the Interior and Local Government had drawn up a list of about 40 names, from municipal mayor to barangay councilman, whose loyalties were suspect.
“We can’t be sure of the loyalties of some people in local government. Either they have been coerced into cooperating with the rebels or they’re sympathetic to their cause,” Robredo told a press briefing at Camp Crame.
He noted that in some towns, the local officials were related by blood to the criminals, some of them belonging to breakaway MILF factions.
List of names for verification
“We have a list that we need to verify even before this whole thing happened. These are not just in Basilan but also in Sulu… There are barangay captains and even a municipal mayor on that list,” Robredo told reporters.
He said once an investigation proved the connections, charges would be filed against the officials, although he did not give a time frame.
Robredo met with the governors who had requested an audience with him to discuss the situation in Mindanao and to express their support for President Aquino’s position not to wage an “all-out war” against the MILF renegades.
“Let the mechanisms of the peace process and the ceasefire agreement move to protect Mindanao from even greater tragedies,” the governors said in the statement. With reports from Allan Nawal, Julie Alipala, Jeoffrey Maitem, Charlie Señase and Orlando Dinoy, Inquirer Mindanao; and Dona Z. Pazzibugan, TJ Burgonio, Gil C. Cabacungan Jr. and DJ Yap in Manila