Military no longer honors ‘ATS’ anywhere
The so-called “area of temporary stay” for Muslim rebels in Al-Barka, Basilan, where 19 soldiers were killed in an ambush last month no longer exists, according to Army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz.
This temporary arrangement that was set up with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during a military operation years ago will not stop the military from pursuing those responsible for the Oct. 18 killing of 19 Special Forces troops, even if these outlaws are inside these ATS or so-called “MILF-influenced communities,” said Ortiz.
The military no longer recognizes any ATS for the MILF anywhere and officially recognizes only seven MILF camps in Maguindanao, Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur provinces as “MILF-influenced communities” when the government agreed a ceasefire with the rebels.
Ortiz explained that the Al-Barka ATS was established in 2007 as a result of a clash there that resulted in the killing of 14 Marines, 10 of whom were beheaded. It was established so the MILF rebels would not get in the way of military pursuit operations against the perpetrators of the beheadings.
“After the termination of operations, the ATS was also terminated. So, technically, there’s no ATS,” Ortiz told reporters.
An “MILF-influenced community” in Al-Barka’s Barangay Ginanta is unofficially recognized by authorities.
The Army chief reiterated that the MILF should surrender its Basilan commander, Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who escaped from jail in 2009 where he was awaiting trial for the beheadings in Al-Barka. Asnawi is also believed to have been one of the leaders of the Oct. 18 ambush of the troops who had gone to Al-Barka to arrest him.
The military has demanded that the MILF turn over Asnawi and suspected Abu Sayyaf leader Long Malat, who, it said, led the Oct. 18 ambush that killed 19 soldiers and wounded 14 others.
The MILF has refused to surrender Asnawi and asked for an investigation of the encounter, claiming the government soldiers did not coordinate their operation beforehand.
“We are mandated to implement the law. We are appealing to the MILF to surrender them,” Ortiz said.
“Our pursuit operations are ongoing. We are mandated to pursue the group of Malat and Asnawi anywhere they may be found,” he said.
If the two wanted outlaws are found inside “MILF-influenced communities, we are mandated to enforce the law to capture and neutralize them,” Ortiz said.
But while insisting it will go after outlaws in Basilan despite the MILF’s noncooperation, the Army will first exhaust peace mechanisms to minimize casualties among civilians, Army spokesperson Maj. Harold Cabunoc said.
The military will have to exhaust the ceasefire mechanisms with the MILF to prevent affecting noncombatants but “if the MILF refuses to cooperate, we will proceed. No one’s above the law,” he said.
“We will do our best to separate the civilians,” Cabunoc said, adding that they are still waiting for the MILF to respond through the ceasefire committee.
Kuala Lumpur peace talks
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where peace negotiators for the government and the Muslim rebels met for the first time on Thursday since the recent bloody clashes, both sides said they agreed to investigate the Oct. 18 ambush.
The military and the MILF have accused each other of breach of the ceasefire agreement following the clash.
“We agreed that investigations through the ceasefire mechanisms shall continue to be conducted. These include those to be done by the international monitoring team in coordination with the [ceasefire committee] and the ad hoc joint action group,” said Marvic Leonen, the government chief negotiator, in a statement issued after the talks.
Leonen said the government will wait for the result of the investigations and will study the recommendations from the monitoring team and ad hoc joint action group.
Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF chief negotiator, said in a statement that the rebels also “reaffirmed” their cooperation with the government’s campaign against organized criminals.
“The MILF will continue to cooperate with government with respect to its efforts to interdict kidnap-for-ransom groups, criminal syndicates, and lost commands” in accordance with the joint communique and implementing guidelines of the ad hoc group,” Iqbal said.
Silent on Asnawi
Both panels were silent on the issue of the arrest order against Asnawi.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the arrest order against Asnawi would be enforced anew.
Gazmin’s statement came in the wake of the admission from ranking military commanders in Mindanao that fresh soldiers had been deployed to Basilan.
Leonen said that there were also other substantive gains in Thursday’s meeting. “As we had hoped, we agreed to move forward on the substantive agenda and meet again very soon for this purpose,” he said.
Iqbal said the Kuala Lumpur meeting was “positive.”
“It was an informal meeting… It was a positive way forward but nothing definite was reached,” he said. With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem and Bobby Lagsa, Inquirer Mindanao
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