To prevent mix-ups among combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, criminal syndicates and kidnap-for-ransom groups, an area is identified for MILF fighters to stay in while military or police operations are being conducted in MILF-influenced communities.
This “area of temporary stay” (ATS) is not “perpetual” and is designated for a given period and for a certain purpose, usually to allow for the pursuit of lawless elements seeking refuge in MILF-influenced communities, Col. Dickson Hermoso, head of the military’s Peace Process Office, told the Inquirer in a phone interview on Wednesday.
“An ATS is designed for a purpose. It is located on the map. It is established by the CCCH (Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities) when there are police operations,” Hermoso said.
The ATS is “dissolved” after an operation and the MILF members go back to their communities, he said.
When asked about the current number and location of such areas in Mindanao, Hermoso said: “Negative.”
But MILF-influenced communities are currently located in the provinces of Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Zamboanga Sibugay and Basilan.
Hermoso said the last ATS was in Al-Barka, Basilan, and was set up in the aftermath of the 2007 killing of 14 Marines—10 of them beheaded—in the province. MILF forces stayed in this ATS while government troops hunted down the attackers, who included Abu Sayyaf bandits.
The clash on Oct. 18, which claimed the lives of 19 soldiers, occurred 4 kilometers away from this former ATS in Al-Barka, Hermoso said.
He said an ATS was also established in 2005 to give government troops a free hand in their pursuit of Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani.
“[Janjalani] was allegedly in the proximity of an MILF-influenced area. So an ATS was established in Guindulungan, Maguindanao, near a swampland,” Hermoso said.
MILF fighters abandoned Camp Bader in Guindulungan and proceeded to the ATS, with the movement witnessed by government soldiers to dispel suspicion that Abu Sayyaf bandits in disguise had joined the group.
Hermoso said that in 2004, nine ATS were established in the provinces of Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Davao Oriental in line with the visit of a Malaysian team monitoring the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF in June 2001.
4-point peace plan
The establishment of ATS for MILF rebels was part of a 4-point peace plan proposed by the government to the group in 2003. This was to avoid “misencounters” while peace negotiations were ongoing.
Other “talking points” included in that proposal were: the setting up of an acceptable monitoring team to monitor ceasefire mechanisms on the ground; the enforcement of a joint communique dated May 6, 2002, where the MILF agreed to interdict criminals taking refuge in its controlled areas; and the pinpointing of responsibility for the bombings in urban areas and destruction of power transmission towers in Mindanao.
In 2003, then Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita was quoted as saying in an Inquirer report that he expected the item on the ATS to be the most contentious.
No longer ‘camps’
On July 18, 1997, the government and the MILF forged an agreement in Cagayan de Oro City to cease hostilities and to continue formal peace talks.
The implementing rules were signed four months later, on Nov. 14, 1997, paving the way for the acknowledgment of 7 of the 46 MILF camps—Abubakar in Barira, Maguindanao; Bushra in Butig, Lanao del Sur; Rajamuda in Buliok, Pagalungan, Maguindanao; Omar and Bader in Guindulungan, Maguindanao; Darapanan in Maguindanao; and Bilal in Munai, Lanao del Norte.
“But now, we refrain from using the words ‘camps,’ ‘territories,’ ‘stronghold.’ They are called ‘communities’ or ‘areas influenced’ by them,” Hermoso said.
After the fall of Abubakar in 2000 when then President Joseph Estrada waged an all-out war against the MILF, the group’s members dispersed all over the conflict areas.
But lawless elements also sought refuge in these areas, Hermoso said.
Joint action group
Under the 2002 joint communique, an ad hoc joint action group against criminal elements hiding in MILF-influenced communities was formed. This group works with the CCCH in monitoring the conflict areas.
“If government soldiers or MILF combatants move from one barangay to another with arms, there should be coordination,” Hermoso said.
“If there’s a report of violations, the CCCH will send a quick-response team. If there’s an active shooting war, it will serve as a mediator,” he said.
Article I of the Implementing Rules and Operational Guidelines and Ground Rules of the 1997 Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities lists the prohibited acts.
These include terrorism acts such as kidnapping, hijacking, piracy, sabotage, arson, bombings, grenade throwing, robbery liquidation/assassination, unjustified arrest, torture, unreasonable search and seizure, summary execution, burning of houses, places of worship and educational institutions, destruction of properties, and abuse of civilians.
Aggressive acts such as attacks, raid, ambuscades, land mines, offensive military actions such as shelling, reconnoitering and unjustified massing of troops, are also banned.
The establishment of checkpoints, except those necessary for the government’s enforcement and maintenance of peace and order and for the defense and security of the MILF in its identified areas, is also considered a violation.
Sources: Phone interview with Col. Dickson Hermoso; Inquirer Archives; www.opapp.gov.ph