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‘We’ll hunt them down’

President Aquino tries to soften no all-out war order

President Benigno Aquino III expressed the nation’s gratitude to the soldiers killed in the Oct. 18 clash with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) renegades, and vowed that the state would “defend its citizens against all enemies in the territories under its control.”

But the President maintained his position that no all-out war would be declared against the MILF, whose forces had owned up to a spate of other ambushes that killed at least seven more government troopers the past week.

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“Our ceasefire with the MILF has been going on for a pretty long time. But for other groups, like the ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group), our operations continue… It would be better if the next operations would be better planned so we can demonstrate the full force of the state,” he said.

In a late-night visit on Friday to the Libingan ng mga Bayani to pay his respects to 15 of the 19 Army men slain in Al-Barka, Basilan, the President delivered a sharp warning to those coddling lawless elements pursued by government forces: “If you help those that are being hunted by the state, you will be counted among the enemies of the state, and you will be hunted down, too.”

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He told the bereaved families that the nation was indebted to the slain soldiers for staying true to their sworn duty, and pledged that the killers would be brought to justice.

“I make no promises that this will be done tomorrow or the day after, in 24 hours or 48 hours. That’s not my style. But I guarantee that the state will hunt them down, and it will get them,” he said.

As for those meddling in the highly charged issue, he said, the state would not stand for it as well.

Appeal for calm

Mr. Aquino appealed for calm and sobriety, saying his administration would not be cowed into making hasty and irresponsible decisions while the peace talks with the MILF, which had been waging a decades-old campaign for Bangsamoro autonomy, neared resumption.

He said the claim that the MILF was also responsible for the subsequent ambushes in Zamboanga Sibugay remained speculation at this point. (While the group has owned up to the attacks, a military spokesperson said the site of the ambushes was not an MILF encampment.)

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On radio on Saturday, Undersecretary Abigail Valte, the President’s deputy spokesperson, said his decision not to wage all-out war against the MILF did not mean that the administration thought little of the martyrdom of the slain soldiers.

“We are seeking justice at the right place, at the right time. This doesn’t mean we’re undermining the sacrifice [of the soldiers]. That is the farthest thing from the truth,” Valte said.

She said the administration understood that “emotions were running high,” and reiterated the President’s statement that “the human cost of war will be too great.”

PMA in mourning

At Fort del Pilar in Baguio City, the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) marked its 113th Foundation Day yesterday in mourning for its two graduates, both junior officers, and the 17 other soldiers killed.

Maj. Gen. Nonato Peralta, the PMA superintendent, urged the cadets and guests, including Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., to reflect on the death of members of a Special Forces unit sent to arrest Dan Laksaw Asnawi, a commander of the MILF, in Al-Barka.

Among the four officers killed were 1st Lt. Vladimir Maninang of PMA Maragtas Class of 2007 and 2nd Lt. Jose Delfin Khe of PMA Masidlak Class of 2010.

The PMA beacon, the academy’s giant electronic sign that was built in 2003 and deactivated in 2004, was again lit on Friday night to highlight the military school’s founding anniversary, Peralta said.

In his speech, Peralta said in Filipino: “We are in deep mourning due to our slain heroic soldiers. The [military], including the PMA, cannot hide its grief over the untimely death of the 19 soldiers in Basilan, including two officers who graduated from our academy.”

He asked for a minute of silence to pray for the slain soldiers.

Arming soldiers properly

In his own speech, Ochoa told the cadets: “To you, they are brothers-in-arms, and I convey the President’s condolences as well as his pledge that their passing, as well as their sacrifice, will not be in vain.”

The need for arming soldiers properly has become a priority of the Aquino administration, Ochoa said.

He said the President had certified as urgent a measure seeking to extend to 2025 the duration of the Armed Forces’ modernization program (Republic Act No. 7898), which requires organizational reforms and the acquisition of military equipment from 1995 to 2010.

The law requires Congress to appropriate up to P50 billion for the first five years of the program, and allows the opening up of idle military lands to investors to help raise capital for military hardware.

Ochoa said Mr. Aquino’s governance philosophy of “daang matuwid” (straight path) “will lead to a future where blood will no longer be shed in the defense of our country’s sovereignty.”

“There is no greater tribute to our fallen heroes than by fighting … to win the peace—peace with principle, peace with honor, peace without sacrificing our sovereignty,” he said.

Ochoa also said the PMA remained the most exclusive government-run military leadership institution that continued to produce officials for the military.

He said the Aquino administration wanted to prepare the cadets, as well as its current crop of soldiers, for a form of combat that required from them “a world view that allows them to comprehend the nuances of the law, statecraft, diplomacy and, most of all, intelligence.”

MILF urged: Step aside

In Zamboanga City, the chief of the Western Mindanao Command on Saturday called on the MILF to step aside and allow authorities to go after its renegade members.

“The MILF should be advised that they have commanders and members who continuously destroy the image of the MILF by venturing into criminal activities hiding under the guarantees provided by the peace process,” Lt.  Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said.

Ferrer made the remark in the wake of ambushes said to be by MILF forces in the towns of Kabasalan and Alicia in Zamboanga Sibugay on Thursday evening, in which seven soldiers and policemen were killed and eight other government men were injured.

He said the soldiers and policemen killed were part of the operation against Waning Abdusalam, who, he said, was claimed by the MILF as a commander based in Payao town, also in Zamboanga Sibugay.

“Being an MILF member does not excuse him from being pursued by authorities for past criminal acts such as extortion, kidnapping, murder, etc.” Ferrer said.

MILF spokesperson Von al Haq said the ambushes were in retaliation for a previous military operation in Payao, including the shelling of MILF camps there.

Coordinate with MILF

Al Haq said that when the operation started about two weeks ago, the MILF called the attention of the government peace panel, which replied that the operation was actually directed at suspected kidnap-for-ransom groups in the area.

He said that if the military had a beef with any MILF commander for supposed unlawful activities, it should have asked the government panel to coordinate with the MILF rather than launch attacks at will. With reports from Norman Bordadora in Manila; Julie Alipala, Jeoffrey Maitem and Edwin Fernandez, Inquirer Mindanao

First posted 12:41 am | Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

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TAGS: 19 Basilan heroes, Abu Sayyaf Group, Al-Barka, all-out-war, Basilan clashes, MILF ceasefire, MILF renegades, MILF-AFP clashes, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, peace process, President Benigno Aquino III
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