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Cooperate or stand aside, AFP tells MILF in Basilan

‘THEY KEPT COMING’ A soldier carries a wounded comrade airlifted by helicopter from Al-Barka, Basilan, for treatment in Zamboanga City last month. At least 19 soldiers of the Special Action Forces were killed in a clash with Moro rebels. AP

The Philippine Army deployed special forces troops to track down the killers of 19 soldiers in Basilan province as the government called on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to “cooperate or stand aside.”

Major General Noel Coballes, chief of the 1st Infantry Division based in Pulucan, Zamboanga del Sur province, announced on Tuesday the redeployment of the elite 104th Brigade from Lanao del Sur province to Basilan two weeks after the massacre of the soldiers.

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Coballes said the brigade would join Special Operations Task Force Basilan that earlier had been reinforced with a 91-strong Special Forces contingent and about 100 Army personnel. An Army brigade normally has three battalions, each consisting of 500 men.

“My directive to Army troops in Basilan is to seek justice for the 19 Special Forces and other victims through continuous pursuit and intelligence operations to locate and neutralize all lawless elements and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan,” Lieutenant General Arturo Ortiz, the Army commander, said in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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Coordinate with MILF or …

On Monday, MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq said its forces in Basilan were aware of military plans to undertake an offensive and that the fighters had been ordered to take up defensive positions.

Al Haq said that a military assault in Basilan, unless coordinated with the MILF, would be a violation of the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the government.

“If that happens, it will surely affect the peace process and our forces there will defend their positions with their blood,” he said.

Al Haq said that so far the MILF had not been informed of the operations to be conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Basilan under the campaign for “all-out justice” ordered by President Aquino on October 24 for the massacred soldiers.

Drive not against MILF

Asked about the MILF statement, Malacañang’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Tuesday, “We have made it clear from the onset that this is not against the MILF as an entity but against lawless elements. So, there are two choices. Either they cooperate or stand aside and let our law enforcers do their jobs.”

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On October 18, troops sent to Al-Barka in Basilan with orders to arrest Dan Asnawi, blamed for the beheading of 10 Marine soldiers in 2007 in the same town, ran into stiff resistance from the MILF, resulting in the massacre of the 19 soldiers.

The MILF said that the soldiers strayed into its territory in violation of the ceasefire agreement. The rebels claim that an “area of temporary stay” for their fighters is allowed under the truce.

On October 24, President Benigno Aquino III ordered an air and ground assault supposedly against Moro outlaws in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province, and last week dispatched Philippine Air Force planes to pound an ASG hideout in Indanan on Jolo island.

The battles on the two fronts reportedly left about a dozen soldiers and MILF fighters dead and sent more than 30,000 people into evacuation centers, but critics said the operations were nothing more than an “acoustics war.” The battle zones were also far removed from Al-Barka in spite of the operation being billed as a drive for “all-out justice” for the 19 soldiers killed in Basilan.

Prior information

Earlier, Basilan officials called on the military to consult with them before mounting an operation, particularly in Al-Barka. Vice Governor Al Rasheed Sakalahul said, “We are asking them to give us enough time to move civilians out before they get inside to get the lawless elements.”

Chief Superintendent Bienvenido Latag, police chief for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said they were still evaluating the list of suspects in the October 18 massacre so they can serve the warrant of arrest to the right persons.

“There is an agreement that through a joint operation our police will serve as sheriff with backing from the AFP, but this was never observed,” he said, referring to the slaughter last month.

“This military official who ordered the Special Forces to conduct police action failed to acknowledge the existing ceasefire mechanism where they have to wait for the MILF to turn over the wanted persons,” Latag said.

Originally posted: 8:54 pm | Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

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TAGS: 19 Basilan heroes, AFP, Al-Barka, Attacks, Basilan, Dan Asnawi, Dan Laksaw Asnawi, Government, Insurgency, Malacañang statement, MILF, MILF lawless elements, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Philippine Army, Unrest
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