SOMEWHERE IN NORTH COTABATO?Armed members of the Ilaga, a Christian group known for its bloody attacks and human rights abuses in Mindanao in the 1970s, have resurfaced in this province, warning the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to stop its atrocities against civilians or face the consequences.
?If the fighting will continue, for every civilian killed, we will execute 10 Moro rebels,? Mike Santiago, spokesperson of the Reform Ilaga Movement, told reporters during a press conference yesterday.
Santiago said the Ilaga (Visayan term for ?rat?) would defend not only the rights of Christians and lumad (indigenous peoples), but also of Muslims displaced by the attacks of MILF rebels in Central Mindanao.
?The civilians are suffering now. That?s why we are asking the leadership of the MILF to stop its harassment and attacks in Mindanao because it will only complicate the life of the people,? he said.
Massacre in mosque
Violence attributed to the Ilaga reached its bloodiest in June 1971 with the massacre of 65 men, women and children inside a mosque at Barangay Manili in Carmen, North Cotabato. The group was composed of untrained villagers used by the military to attack Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) communities.
Some members reportedly cut off the ears of dead Muslims and wore them around their necks as trophies. One senior member, Norberto Manero, also gained notoriety in the 1980s after he was convicted of murdering Italian priest Tullio Favali whom he had suspected of having links with communist insurgents.
Santiago, who is in his mid-60s, claimed that his group had at least 10,000 armed members and 10,000 more supporters. At the press conference, the Philippine Daily Inquirer saw some 300 armed men present.
Some fighters had amulets, which, Santiago said, ?came from their elders during the time of Commander Toothpick.? The amulets are believed to lose their powers when a person using it had done something bad.
?Our instruction to them is not to go to battle if they have done something wrong against other people. To follow God?s commandments to avoid accidents that may lead to their deaths,? Santiago said.
MILF suspects military
The MILF earlier warned of more hostilities should the national government allow the resurgence of the Ilaga. It accused the military of ?recreating? the vigilante group.
?The government created it, therefore, it can control it,? Eid Kabalu, civic-military affairs chief of the MILF, said. ?The government must be held responsible for any act of this gang.?
Khaled Musa, MILF deputy chief for information, said rightist groups in Mindanao could not exist without the ?blessings of the Philippine armed forces.?
?We hold the Philippine government responsible for whatever savagery, barbarism, destruction committed by this gangster group against the Bangsamoro people,? Musa stressed.
Early this month, Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, regional military spokesperson, said soldiers would do everything to prevent sectarian violence to happen. ?The creation of the Ilaga group is not necessary. We have the military,? Ando said.
Santiago said that ?Mindanao is not only for the Muslims but for Christians and lumad as well because we are the ones that form the tri-people group, the owner of Mindanao.?
Citing the ongoing hostilities in Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, Santiago said the MILF had brought the fighting even to Muslim communities.
?We need to unite ? Muslims, Christians and lumad. And my message to the Muslim civilians?don?t admire what the MILF group is doing because it will only destroy the development in the region,? he said.
?We must shun the leadership of the MILF. They are the ones that destroy our life. Look at what is happening around you. Many civilians have been affected,? he added.
Santiago supported plans to arm civilians in areas where MILF rebels were active. ?We are for arming civilians in areas targeted by MILF for them to defend their families and properties,? he said.
Earlier, Director General Avelino Razon of the Philippine National Police (PNP) announced plans to distribute at least 1,000 shotguns to residents who would join police auxiliary forces in Mindanao. If the project would succeed, he said, the PNP would order 12,000 more shotguns.
But last week, Amnesty International warned political leaders in Mindanao against arming civilians and local militias, saying this could only heighten the violence.
In the same press conference, Santiago said that unlike other ?revolutionary? groups, the Reform Ilaga Movement recognized the Constitution.
?To our followers, don?t be afraid,? he said. ?I am asking those who will join in the future to strictly follow our Constitution.?
Hunt for Kato, Bravo
Santiago said his group had no plans of running after Ameril Ombra Kato and Abdulla Macapaar, alias Commander Bravo, both MILF leaders who led their followers in attacking several towns in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sarangani.
The government has offered a bounty of P5 million each for the capture of Kato and Bravo. The two rebel commanders launched their offensives after the Supreme Court earlier this month stopped a draft agreement on a proposed Moro homeland in Mindanao and Palawan.
?We will let authorities hunt them. With the bounty for their arrest, their followers will hand them to authorities,? Santiago said.
?We gave a one-week warning against Kato and Bravo before to stop launching attacks. We are happy that they listen to us. But if they launch attacks again, we will fight,? he stressed.
Most of the Reform Ilaga Movement members are farmers from various places in Central Mindanao, Santiago claimed. ?After the fighting broke out, they approached us and asked if we can help,? he said.
?Our warfare style is not offensive but defensive. I think the situation will not get worse. But if the MILF will launch other attacks, we are ready to fight,? he said. With reports from Edwin O. Fernandez, Inquirer Mindanao; and Agence France-Presse