Military operations in Basilan continue but fighting has subsided

Posted on April 17, 2014

ZAMBOANGA CITY/MANILA -- Military operations against members of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan are continuing but active hostilities have subsided, said Capt. Ma. Rowena A. Muyuela, Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) spokesperson.

“No firefight has been reported, but the operation is still ongoing,” she told BusinessWorld.

Meanwhile, President Benigno S.C. Aquino III yesterday said the deaths of four members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the military encounter in Basilan will not affect the recently sealed peace pact between the government and the MILF.

“We don’t see this as a big problem or obstacle to the Comprehensive Agreement we signed,” he added.

In an ambush interview Wednesday, Mr. Aquino told reporters that the military did its duty of informing the MILF about the former’s operation against the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG).

Four members of the MILF were among those killed in a firefight between the government forces and the ASG in Basilan last Friday.

A fierce firefight erupted last weekend in Basilan after government troops raided an Abu Sayyaf lair in the town of Tipo-Tipo. The operation was intended to seize Fujiri Indama, one of the leaders of a group that tried to extort money from the contractor of the Magkawa-Albarka Road. The group is also responsible for a spate of violence and kidnappings in Basilan and other parts of this region.

Lt. Col. Ramon P. Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) spokesperson, said on Tuesday that the number of soldiers wounded in action in the Basilan clash has climbed to 31. Two soldiers have been killed. On the Abu Sayyaf’s side, 14 were wounded and 18 were killed. The MILF acknowledged four of its members were among those killed.

The fighting between the military and the ASG took place just two weeks after the 10,000-member MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the government -- a deal expected to end the decades-old rebellion in Mindanao.

A ranking leader of the MILF -- Ghazali Jaafar, vice-chairman for political affairs of the MILF -- expressed disappointment over the bloody encounter, saying that what happened in Basilan last week was unfortunate. “This is a moment where we are in a honeymoon with the agreement on the Bangsamoro,” he told BusinessWorld. “This honeymoon should not be disturbed,” he added.

Mr. Aquino said the MILF members killed in the fighting were there as relatives of ASG members and not as members of the MILF. “Those members of theirs [MILF] who were killed were not there as members of the MILF but as relatives of the Abu Sayyaf who were being pursued. So [it was more] personal rather than political or ideological,” he said.

Mr. Jaafar confirmed that there are some MILF members with relatives in the Abu Sayyaf but denied their participation in the battle with the military. “The issue of MILF members helping the Abu Sayyaf is not true. But as to the information that MILF members have relatives from that group is correct,” he said.

On Tuesday, AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel T. Bautista visited the Camp Navarro General Hospital where the wounded soldiers are being treated. He also awarded gold cross medals to the relatives of the two soldiers who died in action: 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Fernando Reyeg and Cpl. Loui Orinia.

A report on Tuesday said the Abu Sayyaf members deliberately targeted a military ambulance during the encounter with the government forces in Basilan on April 11.

Ms. Muyuela said ambulance driver Sgt. Rolando Noble was wounded in the attack. “The 104th Army Infantry Brigade has been investigating the incident for appropriate filing of cases against the perpetrators,” she noted.

Earlier, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles also expressed confidence that the incident “will not affect the entire process.”

The MILF fighters killed were reportedly helping Abu Sayyaf fighters battling government troops but did so without their leadership’s permission, Ms. Deles said.

“We are still confident that the MILF leadership can bring a huge bulk of their fighters into the fold of the law ... a small number of the rebel force may opt to ignore the peace deal, [but] any such faction would be subjected to law enforcement activities,” she said.

The government panel and the MILF signed the CAB (which contains the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, its four annexes, and one addendum) on March 27.

The agreement outlines the milestones over the next two years that will put in place the Bangsamoro political entity (replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where Basilan is found), the expanded powers of autonomy to be granted to the new political entity, the detailed process of decommissioning the armed component of the MILF, and the mechanisms for increased security in the area.

The Bangsamoro Transition Commission recently submitted to the President the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is seen to speed up the process of creating the autonomous region as part of a peace process to end decades of fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, the President is leaving it up to the military to decide whether to declare a Lenten ceasefire with the New People’s Army.

“That’s a tactical decision which I leave to the Chief of Staff, and I await their recommendation,” he said. -- Imee Charlee C. Delavin, Karel B. Mellanes and Albert F. Arcilla