Basilan Clash Adds Crack On Already Fragile Peace In Southern Philippines

July 13, 2007 at 11:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MAGUINDANAO (Mindanao Examiner / 13 Jul) – The Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have put its forces in highest alert following a bloody clashes between soldiers and guerrillas that killed 4 dozen people from both sides.

Fourteen soldiers were killed and ten of those who died in Tuesday fighting were decapitated after troops searching for a kidnapped Italian Catholic priest Giancarlo Bossi strayed into a territory of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Al-Barka town.

At least 30 gunmen were also killed in the clashes, said Marines Col. Ramiro Alivio, the island’s military chief. He said troops fought about 500 MILF and Abu Sayyaf militants, whose group is tied to al-Qaeda terror network.

The MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group negotiating peace with Manila, admitted the attack and said rebels were defending their stronghold.

President Gloria Arroyo ordered troops to hunt those responsible in the gruesome attack.

“The government will account for the perpetrators of this heinous attack in line with the rule of law, through the mechanisms of the peace process. The Armed Forces are duty-bound to hunt down and arrest those who treacherously killed and beheaded the soldiers,” Arroyo said on Thursday.

On Friday, acting Defense chief Norberto Gonzales said the government will not allow the attackers go unpunished. “We will not allow those responsible (in the beheading of the soldiers) unpunished,” he told the dzRH radio network in Manila.

Gonzales blamed the MILF for the attack. “We have a peace process and then they will attack the soldiers. And we saw (on television reports and news videos) what really happened and we will not allow those responsible in the killings to go unpunished,” he said.

“If they want to pull out (from the peace talks) then go ahead,” Gonzales said after being told in the interview that the MILF may threaten to pull out from the peace negotiations if Manila insists on blaming the rebel for violating a six-year old cease-fire accord.

Mohagher Iqbal, the chief MILF peace negotiator, accused the military of violating the truce after some 100 marine soldiers encroached inside a rebel stronghold in the guise of searching for Bossi, who was kidnapped June 10 in Zamboanga Sibugay province.

Iqbal said rebel forces are in heightened alert because of government pronouncements that troops would launch new offensive in Basilan. “The MILF is in high alert right now,” he said.

Peace talks were stalled since last year after MILF, which is fighting for a separate Muslim homeland, rejected a government proposal for a limited autonomy.

Police and military authorities also tagged Akiddin Abdusallam, an MILF leader, is holding Bossi for ransom, a charge strongly denied by Iqbal, saying, the kidnapper is a member of the Abu Sayyaf.

Arroyo said the MILF must stand apart from the Abu Sayyaf group, blamed for the spate of kidnappings of foreigners and terrorism in the South.

“If the perpetrators are Abu Sayyaf, the MILF must stand apart from these terrorists and allow their pursuit and interdiction by government forces. If MILF forces are culpable, then they must be accounted for by the ceasefire committees and be brought to justice,” Arroyo said, adding, “There can be no excuses or alibis for these acts of savagery.”

Intelligence sources in Basilan have also implicated unnamed politicians who were allegedly supplying the Abu Sayyaf and with mortar rockets, weapons and munitions.

Maj. Gen. Nelson Allaga, Philippine Marines chief, said they will pursue the Abu Sayyaf even if the militants are hiding inside so-called MILF territories.

“Definitely, we will pursue the Abu Sayyaf wherever they are in Basilan,” Allaga said.

Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo, a regional army chief, said more troops will be sent to Basilan to pursue the attackers and search for Bossi. One battalion of soldiers from the island of Jolo is on its way to Basilan, he said.

Military reports said soldiers have wounded a senior Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon and his son and killed at least 30 MILF gunmen. The MILF said only four rebels were killed and seven others injured in the fighting.

Isnilon is on the terror lists of the Philippines and United States and was implicated in the kidnappings of U.S. citizens and foreigners in the restive South.

Alivio said the search for Bossi is ongoing in Basilan. “We have persistent reports that Bossi is being held in Al-Barka town and the MILF is preventing us from searching the priest,” he said.

Last week, three undated photographs of Bossi in captivity were sent through cell phone to his friend Spanish priest Angel Calvo in Zamboanga City. The military said a former Basilan town mayor was the source of the photos. It was unclear how the former official was able to get the photos. (Mindanao Examiner)

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