Hundreds Of Troops Arrive In Basilan Island, MILF Now In High Alert

July 14, 2007 at 12:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ZAMBOANGA CITY (Mindanao Examiner / 14 Jul) – Hundreds of Filipino troops have arrived in the southern island of Basilan to pursue Muslim militants blamed for the killing and beheading of 14 soldiers.

“The soldiers arrived in Basilan from Jolo island and they are now pursuing the Abu Sayyaf,” Maj. Eugene Batara, a regional army spokesman, told the Mindanao Examiner on Saturday.

He said more soldiers will be deployed on the island, just several nautical miles south of Zamboanga City.

The Philippine military blamed the killings to the al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf group and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is currently negotiating peace with the Arroyo government.

The MILF have also put its forces in highest alert following the bloody clashes that also killed five of its fighters, according to Mohagher Iqbal, the group’s chief peace negotiator. “We are in heightened alert because of possible retaliation by the Philippine military,” he told the Mindanao Examiner.

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

The MILF said the soldiers violated a fragile six-year old truce when they entered a known rebel stronghold in Al-Barka town without proper coordination. It said rebels defended their stronghold thinking the soldiers would mount an attack.

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.

Marines Col. Ramiro Alivio, the island’s military chief, said the soldiers were searching for a kidnapped Italian Catholic clergy Giancarlo Bossi when some 500 Abu Sayyaf and MILF gunmen attacked them, sparking daylong clashes that also killed at least 30 of the ambushers.

The MILF said it recovered weapons from the slain soldiers and would not return the firearms to the military, despite repeated demands.

“We will not return the weapons. The fighting was a legitimate encounter after the military violated the cease-fire (agreement),” Iqbal said.

Among the weapons seized by rebels were four machine guns, a bazooka, five M203 grenade launchers, two M14 rifles, five M16 rifles, two night vision goggles and a pair of radio transceivers.

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.

Police and military authorities tagged Akiddin Abdusallam, an MILF leader, as behind the kidnapping of the 57-year old Bossi, from Milan, a charge strongly denied by Iqbal, saying, Abdusallam was kicked out long time ago because of his criminal past and has then joined 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 cease-fire committees and be brought to justice,” Arroyo said, adding, “There can be no excuses or alibis for these acts of savagery.”

Although the MILF admitted responsibility for the attack, it denied beheading the soldiers.

Sattar Alih, head of the MILF cease-fire monitoring team in Basilan island, said rebel forces withdrew from the battle scene, leaving the bodies of soldiers behind, after military and rebels agreed to a cease-fire.

It was unknown who were behind the decapitation, but intelligence sources in Basilan have also implicated unnamed politicians who allegedly supplied the Abu Sayyaf and with mortar rockets, weapons and munitions during the fighting.

Their private armies also fought against the military forces side-by-side with the MILF and that two gunmen had died in the skirmishes.

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.

Military reports said soldiers have wounded a senior Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon and his son 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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