MILF rebels pull out but new ones arrive


By Inquirer Mindanao, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:21:00 08/09/2008

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels on Friday started withdrawing from the areas they had occupied in the province of North Cotabato as the 24-hour deadline set by the government expired, Presidential Peace Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said.

Esperon told the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Mindanao bureau over lunch Friday that the rebels had pulled out of the towns of Midsayap, Aleosan, Alamada and Pigcawayan.

The rebels were reported to have occupied nine villages in five towns in North Cotabato.

North Cotabato Governor Jesus Sacdalan said, however, that while some MILF forces had left the occupied areas, including Baliki village in Midsayap town, fresh rebel troops had begun arriving.

“We want a total pullout. If they will not leave by morning [Saturday], we will implement the law,” Sacdalan warned.

Brig. Gen. Reynaldo Sealana, co-chair of the joint Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), said the rebels “began to move” at around 4:30 p.m. Friday.

“We supervised their movement,” Sealana told reporters in the Camp Aguinaldo military general headquarters in Metro Manila by phone.

He said the joint CCCH had deployed a joint monitoring team to ensure that the military or civilian volunteer organizations would not enter the concerned areas until the MILF had made a complete withdrawal.

He added that the joint CCCH would return to the villages Saturday morning to check on the MILF troop movement.

MILF civil-military affairs chief Eid Kabalu also said members of the International Monitoring Team had been deployed to address problems that could aggravate the situation.

On foot or by boat

Sealana said that in the villages of Dualing and Dunguan in Aleosan town, he saw around 100 MILF rebels move by foot or on pump boats toward the neighboring province of Maguindanao.

He said the rebels were informed during negotiations that a resolution had been signed by the joint CCCH and the International Monitoring Team stating that the MILF should “reposition its forces” to their original areas prior to July 27, when five skirmishes occurred in North Cotabato between the rebels and government troops.

“We told them that we should honor the joint resolution, which indicated that the MILF chief of staff had signed a letter directing its forces, except for the local MILF, to pull out and return to where they came from,” Sealana said.

The MILF central committee had also given orders to its troops to “reposition.”

However, Kabalu himself admitted that there had been no “repositioning” of troops as yet.

“This is not easy,” he said. “The CCCH has a proposal submitted to the MILF leadership. We will set up a joint monitoring team. Measures are being drawn up. What we are more concerned with is the aftermath of this. If it’s repositioning for the sake of repositioning, it will only be a cycle.”

In Cotabato City, Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice chair for political affairs, said both sides had agreed that rebel forces would “gradually” move out of the villages.

“It may take some time. We are doing it gradually, and both sides have agreed: No more firing of guns,” Jaafar told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, adding that the MILF had not forcibly occupied the villages.

“We are moving out slowly and we are doing it because we recognize the existence of a ceasefire agreement,” he said.

No force necessary

Maj. Gen. Armando Cunanan, chief of the Eastern Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said peace had been restored in the occupied areas.

Cunanan said the military did not have to use force in convincing the rebels to withdraw because diplomatic efforts aimed at preserving the peace process had succeeded. He said it had become Esperon’s policy “not to promote the culture of war.”

“There is a ceasefire committee that has to resolve the breakdown of law and order. We will act only upon instruction by higher headquarters,” Cunanan said, but added that the military had not abandoned the civilian population.

Earlier Friday, the opposing camps were in a virtual standoff in North Cotabato as they awaited the results of the CCCH negotiations to convince “recalcitrant” MILF troops to withdraw.

“If they will not leave, the signal will be given for us to go there. But as of now, we are waiting,” said Lt. Col. Diosdado Carreon, commander of the 40th Infantry Battalion, stationed in North Cotabato. He told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo by phone that the CCCH was “still talking” to the MILF troops.

Carreon said his troops were “just waiting for the order to cross the line of departure,” the military term for the invisible line that divides the two opposing camps.

“When the ‘go’ is given, we will move forward. If they are still there, there will be fighting,” Carreon said.

Restraint

In Cagayan de Oro City, AFP Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Alexander Yano ordered government troops to exercise restraint.

Speaking at a command conference with officers of the Fourth Infantry Battallion in Camp Evangelista, Yano also said he had told North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Piñol that the AFP was “duty-bound to protect the people in all areas.”

Yano told the officers, “We are hoping for the best while expecting the worst. Let us continue our calibrated response to the situation in Mindanao. I commend you for showing exceptional restraint despite the heightened situation and alleged provocation from the other side.”

Director Silverio Alarcio of the Philippine National Police (PNP) also told reporters at the PNP general headquarters Camp Crame in Metro Manila that the PNP was giving way to negotiations for the rebels’ withdrawal.

Alarcio said the MILF leadership had ordered a pullout and that emissaries from its 105th Base Command had been sent to collect the rebels still in the area “to complete the pullout.”

“The deadline has already lapsed, but what is important is they leave the villages,” he said.

On the phone, Sealana said the “on and off fighting for more than a month” in North Cotabato had led to the occupation of the nine villages in the towns of Aleosan, Libungan, Midsayap, Pigkawayan and North Kabuntalan.

The MILF forces are under the 105th Base Command of Commander Umbra Kato, who remained in his camp in Liguasan Marsh, Sealana said.

‘3 Dodongs’

Esperon said among the things needed to resolve the situation was for certain officials to talk peace, not fight. He did not name the officials, but referred to them as the “three Dodongs.”

“There will be no end to this if we try to resolve everything through war,” he said.

Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that he and two like-minded other officials were not fighting but “asserting our constitutional rights.”

Lobregat said the seeming fighting stance presented by North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Piñol, Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Lluch Cruz and himself would not have happened “if only we were consulted” on the proposed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government and the MILF “and they listened to the people.”

The proposed memorandum—the signing of which was temporarily stopped by the Supreme Court on the request of North Cotabato officials—lays down the provisions for a Bangsamoro homeland.

(During the peace talks with the Moro National Liberation Front, there were the so-called “Tres Marias”—then Representatives Ma. Clara Lobregat and Daisy Fuentes and Rep. Lualhati Antonino—who opposed the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF.)

Request for ammo

Esperon said he had no problem with the stance of the “three Dodongs” but added they should confine it to the legal process and not instigate their people to take up arms.

He cited his July 14 meeting with a North Cotabato official at which, he said, he was asked for ammunition.

He said the request was made even before North Cotabato executives had started questioning the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, or MOA-AD.

“They were asking for additional ammunition. ‘Why?’ we asked. I told them that we have to leave it to the security forces to defend the people and the state,” Esperon said.

He said that was the time when he learned about the three officials’ plan to contest the MOA-AD before the Supreme Court.

It was also during that time, he said, that he told Piñol it would be better for them to be prepared for the consequence of their action because “it is no longer 2000, when we were poised to attack for you.”

In 2000, then-president Joseph Estrada administration waged an “all-out war” against the MILF.

Lobregat said, however, that the meeting with Piñol and Cruz was aimed at consolidating the position of those opposing the MOA-AD. “I invited them for the reason that we want to come up with a concerted effort, a unified move, and to avoid duplication in our legal case,” he said.

Lobregat said the meeting was attended by Senator Manuel Roxas II, and other senators—including Juan Ponce Enrile, Rodolfo Biazon and Francis Escudero—indicated support for their cause. Julie Alipala, Charlie Senase, Jeoffrey Maitem, Germelina Lacorte, Jeffrey Tupas, Richel Umel, Aguiles Z. Zonio, Orlando Dinoy, Ma. Cecilia Rodriguez and Edwin O. Fernandez, Inquirer Mindanao; Alcuin Papa in Manila

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