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President Aquino’s order: Pursue peace, not Moro rebels

Even as calls mounted for him to launch an all-out war against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the wake of the killing of 19 soldiers this week, President Benigno Aquino III on Friday instructed the military that that there would be no offensive operation against those responsible for the killings in Al-Barka, Basilan province.

“We have no such plan. Peace is on the top of our minds. Eventually we want to attain peace. We have to wait. We cannot just act. We have to assess the situation,” said Brig. Gen. Jose Mabanta, the Armed Forces deputy chief for operations, after emerging from the command conference with Mr. Aquino.

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“Even if we need to take some harsher moves, eventually what is on top of our mind is the success of the peace process,” he added.

In a late night visit to the families of the 15 slain Army soldiers on Friday, Mr. Aquino expressed his commitment to pursue justice for their deaths.

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But he called for calm and responsibility amid persistent cries for an all-out war against the MILF.

Mr. Aquino said the state was determined to run after all lawless elements, especially the Abu Sayyaf group, but not the MILF, with whom the government was honoring a ceasefire agreement.

The President said he commiserated with the families and friends of the fallen soldiers and thanked them for their sacrifice to defend the nation.

He also warned others who want to meddle in the issue, saying that they might also find themselves considered enemies of the state.

“The instruction was that the conduct of operations against the MILF should not be pursued because of the existing ceasefire,” said Mabanta, who faced the media as the President left right after the conference earlier.

“However (operations against) other lawless elements and the Abu Sayyaf are entirely different,” said Mabanta, who added later that some MILF rebels were working with the Abu Sayyaf.

But Mabanta clarified that the military also did not recommend the launch of pursuit operations against the MILF in Al-Barka.

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The government will also not demand that the MILF turn over fugitive commander, Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who is believed to have led the Al-Barka ambush, said Mabanta.

He said the option being pursued is to follow the legal process, which is to file murder charges against Asnawi, who had earlier been charged with murder for the deaths of 14 Marines (10 of whom were beheaded, also in Al-Barka in 2007) but escaped from jail in 2009.

Dissatisfied with military

In a two-hour command conference in Camp Aguinaldo, the President took the military to task for the recent military setbacks in the fight against Muslim and communist insurgents.

“He expressed dissatisfaction with the series of events that happened starting with the Taganito (mining attack in Surigao del Norte on Oct. 3). He was dissatisfied with the performance of the Armed Forces. He said we have to step up our operations,” Mabanta said.

Mabanta said the President gave “specific guidance on things that need to be done” following the series of debacle.

He ordered them to review the organizational setup in “very critical areas” like Jolo island and Basilan.

“We took it in good stride and we will have to step up our operations and improve operations,” Mabanta said.

Full offensive

But while the President ruled out pursuit operations in Al-Barka, he gave the nod to the military offensive operations in Zamboanga Sibugay, the scene of a series of MILF attacks on the military and police on Friday.

“He said ‘I think we are on the right track. Please go ahead with what you are doing,’” Mabanta quoted the President as saying.

“We are conducting full offensive military operations against them in Zamboanga Sibugay,” he said.

He said the military is pursuing lawless elements in Zamboanga Sibugay and that the provincial government has passed a resolution asking the military to pursue “wanted criminals.”

Mabanta said a demand for the surrender of Asnawi was not discussed during the command conference although it could be discussed later.

“As of now, one of the things we are planning is we may be filing charges against the MILF (perpetrators). It will have to be done in Basilan itself,” he said.

No demoralization

Mabanta denied that there was demoralization in the military after the Al-Barka debacle.

“Yes, we heard those reports. It’s really sad what happened but we have to move on,” he said.

Soldiers are prepared to lay down their lives the moment they take their oath, he said.

He said Army spokesperson Col. Antonio Parlade Jr., who was one of those quoted about the demoralization in the military, was speaking in a personal capacity.

“He was being asked to justify his statements yesterday,” he said.

“That’s not true. There is no demoralization. The demoralization may be a hindrance to our duties,” he said.

Lift ceasefire

In an interview with dzRH radio, Parlade publicly disagreed with government peace negotiators, particularly Marvic Leonen, who said the Al-Barka clash was accidental and talks would proceed.

“Maybe in his perspective that was a misencounter because he doesn’t treat the rebels anymore as enemies,” Parlade said.

He said the government should temporarily lift the ceasefire in Basilan and allow troops to hunt down the insurgents.

What peace talks?

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense secretary, said the government should suspend the peace talks if the MILF will not surrender their fighters behind the killing of the troops.

“What peace talks are we talking about when they are engaging us in combat?” he said.

But Mr. Aquino said breaking a truce with the rebels and resuming outright war would not benefit anyone.

In Congress, other legislators added their voice to the growing clamor for the President to abort the peace talks and take tougher action against the MILF.

“It’s time for (Mr. Aquino) to do an Erap,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate committee on national defense, referring to the war launched in 2000 by deposed President Joseph Estrada against the MILF. Government troops then overran the group’s main headquarters Camp Abubakar.

“It is time to untie the hands of our soldiers and authorize them to fight the MILF on equal terms and not handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit,” the senator said.

“It is difficult for our soldiers to understand why they should not be allowed to patrol or conduct military exercises in any part of their area of jurisdiction,” said Lacson, who was Estrada’s police chief.

Not ‘isolated incident’

Estrada’s son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, called for the resignation of Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles for supposedly dismissing the Basilan incident as an “isolated case.”

“Deles should open her eyes that such an incident is a blatant disregard of the ongoing peace talks with the MILF,” he said.

“As the government has re-initiated a policy of peaceful and diplomatic negotiations, the other side has shown modest interest in attaining long-lasting peace,” he said.

Lacson said only a “tactical victory” by the Armed Forces can lead to peace in the troubled areas in Mindanao.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III urged the MILF “to go the route of peace instead of armed struggle in (its) search for a just resolution of (its) grievances.”

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said it was unfair to call the death of the 19 soldiers as an “isolated incident” although it does not qualify as a “war crime” under international laws.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say this is isolated. If you are one of those families, this is a life-changing tragedy and is of great importance,” Santiago said.

File murder charges

She said the government should file murder charges against the rebels who killed the captured soldiers.

“Since they were captured, they were entitled to live. They should have been treated with humanitarian consideration,” said Santiago who was interviewed on the sidelines of a forum on international criminal justice at the UP College of Law on Friday.

But Santiago said the peace talks with the MILF should continue, unless the rebels refuse to cooperate in the arrest and detention of the perpetrators of the crime of murder.

She said the deaths of the 19 soldiers only showed the “lack of foresight and competence” of the military.

The soldiers were “lured into a trap” and despite enough time, they were unable to call for help, she said.

“There was sufficient time to help them on the ground, say deploy a helicopter with more troops. Why didn’t that happen?” she asked.

At the House, Ang Galing Pinoy Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo said the government should rethink the peace talks and cautioned that mishandling the issue of the deaths of the 19 soldiers could cause demoralization in the Armed Forces.

Favoring the MILF

Zambales Rep. Mitos Magsaysay said the President should first get to the bottom of the story behind the bloody encounter before scolding the military or making pronouncements about the peace process.

“It would seem that this early, the President has already made a prejudgment in favor of the MILF,” she said.

She said the President made his statements without factoring in reports that the Abu Sayyaf may have been working with the MILF to stage the assault or the military’s account that they were overwhelmed by the rebels.

“We all want peace in Mindanao but those responsible for the deaths should be held accountable to give justice to those who were slain by this blatant violation of the ceasefire,” she said.

Rare political conviction

Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said the President showed rare political conviction.

“We hope that he remains steadfast and not to be swayed by the military line of thinking in dealing with rebels with legitimate causes, both with the MILF and the NDF,” Casiño said.

He said that past negotiations on peace had been sabotaged with the executive buckling under pressure from the military. With reports from Cynthia D. Balana and DJ Yap

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TAGS: abu sayyaf, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro rebels, peace process, President Benigno Aquino III
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