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Army, MILF harmony turns fragile

/ 12:05 AM February 01, 2015
IN ONE of the biggest successfully coordinated efforts of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an unidentified member of the Presidential Security Group exchanged banter with female members of the MILF as both government and MILF forces helped secure an area near the MILF’s Camp Darapanan that was visited by President Aquino in February 2013. KARLOS MANLUPIG

IN ONE of the biggest successfully coordinated efforts of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an unidentified member of the Presidential Security Group exchanged banter with female members of the MILF as both government and MILF forces helped secure an area near the MILF’s Camp Darapanan that was visited by President Aquino in February 2013. KARLOS MANLUPIG

When the sun rose on Jan. 25, the phones of military and police officials and leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Maguindanao province were ringing nonstop.

All the callers had one question: What happened?

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A military source, who refused to be named, said even the leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, specifically the 6th Infantry Division (ID) based in Datu Odin Sinsuat town in Maguindanao, did not expect a gunfight between government forces and the MILF because they had been coexisting peacefully for the past years as a result of a truce.

MILF commands, local police forces, military units and local governments complemented efforts of the peace panels of the MILF and national government in keeping the peace.

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Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chair for political affairs, has said the truce held after it was realized that the solution to the fighting was not more bloodshed but a political settlement.

Although there are many roadblocks on the way to peace, avenues have been opened for negotiations instead of gunfights.

Truce monitor

One of these was the agreement on the cessation of hostilities that was signed on July 18, 1997, leading to the creation of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) on May 6, 2002.

The 1997 agreement was clear on what were prohibited: kidnapping, hijacking, piracy, sabotage, arson, bombing, grenade attacks, robbery, executions, unjustified arrest, torture, unwarranted search and seizure, and attacks on civilians and places of worship.

The agreement was also clear on another thing: Harboring criminals was a no-no.

The AHJAG was formed to enforce this agreement.

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Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, spokesperson of the military’s 6th ID, confirmed that although there were problems in the earlier part of the peace process and in the implementation of the mechanism, it had been working smoothly in the past.

One instance of successful coordination between government and MILF forces was in July 2012, when troops of both sides helped secure the passage of thousands of MILF members and supporters to Camp Darapanan, the main MILF camp, for a consultation assembly on the peace process.

“Coordination with the AFP was very smooth. This coordination is a display of sincerity from both sides. And sincerity is very important for the progress of the peace negotiations,” MILF vice chair for military affairs Von Al Haq said during the activity.

Assault vs BIFF

On July 6, 2013, government forces launched a major assault to flush out members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Datu Piang town and in Barangay Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town.

Former 6th ID commander Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz then said “atrocities and threats” from the BIFF prompted the military, Philippine National Police, the AHJAG and the MILF to conduct law enforcement operations.

Several gunfights ensued in other locations, including in the province of North Cotabato, but there were no cases of MILF forces getting involved in clashes with government soldiers.

Al Haq earlier explained that the military had closely coordinated with the leadership of the MILF “to avoid misencounters.”

“The operation was successfully done with the help of the MILF through coordination in accordance with the ceasefire mechanism,” Petinglay said of the July 2012 coordinated effort by the MILF and government in Camp Darapanan.

In August 2013, a joint clearing operation between the MILF and the military was initiated in Butig, Lanao del Sur province, where a suspected terror cell was hiding after a bomb attack in Cagayan de Oro City.

In October 2013, Kadtatabanga Security Force was launched in Datu Hoffer Ampatuan town. It was composed of local PNP, military and MILF men who would respond to crimes.

‘Good relationship’

“This shows that there is a good relationship among government forces and the MILF in this area,” Petinglay said.

On June 10, 2014, an operation was launched in Barangay Libutan to capture the suspect in the June 6 bombing in Datu Unsay Ampatuan town that killed a soldier and injured three others. A gunfight broke out during the operation, lasting for about two hours. The military reported that two suspects were killed and four others were arrested. A sniper rifle, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and a van were recovered from the suspects, former 6th ID spokesperson Col. Dickson Hermoso said.

It was later divulged that the target in the operation was Basit Usman and among those arrested was his wife.

Usman was wounded but was able to escape.

Petinglay said critics of the military-MILF coordination efforts would say Usman’s escape should be reason enough to keep the MILF out of the loop on future operations against terror suspects.

But other factors led to Usman’s escape then, Petinglay said.

Petinglay said there were things beyond the control of authorities. “It can happen,” Petinglay added.

Sources said someone who saw the troop movement called up Usman and alerted him.

Petinglay, however, said the operation was still successful, despite Usman’s escape, because his cell was paralyzed.

One of the major accomplishments of the coordination between the military and the MILF was the fall of the main camp of the BIFF 2nd Division in SK Pendatun town.

The BIFF maintained at least 50 huts, barricades, trenches and posts with overhead bunkers inside the camp, Petinglay said.

An IED and documents on how to make an IED were found in the camp, Petinglay said.

Securing P-Noy

One of the biggest coordinated efforts was securing President Aquino when he came to visit Maguindanao, according to Petinglay. Mr. Aquino visited the site of the launch of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a program to facilitate the delivery of social services to MILF areas, just a few kilometers from Camp Darapanan.

Petinglay said the military, local police and the MILF also worked together in several instances to secure the release of kidnap victims and to arrest criminals in Mindanao.

Many cases of clan feuds, or “rido,” were also resolved through the joint efforts of government forces and the MILF, Petinglay said.

These were proofs that the mechanism worked only if it was heeded, Petinglay said.

The emergence of a photo of a dead Marwan inside the territory of the MILF 105th Base Command, however, fueled speculation that the MILF had provided sanctuary to one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.

In a classified cable wire posted in Wikileaks, former US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney reported that Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair, in a meeting in Camp Darapanan in February 2008, acknowledged that terror groups were taking advantage of the rebel group and using MILF areas to shelter terrorists.

Jaafar has said these were speculations that would be clarified only through an impartial investigation.

He said the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the armed wing of the MILF, and its central committee were strict on the enforcement of discipline among its fighters and would not hesitate to punish erring members.

On why there was no coordination with the MILF on the mission to get Marwan in Mamasapano, no answers were ready. Karlos Manlupig

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Dickson Hermoso, Ghadzali Jaafar, Jo-Ann Petinglay, Mamasapano, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Von Al Haq
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