Rebels in a rampage in Mindanao; all-out war urged as more soldiers are killed

Erap, Enrile, Lacson, Biazon lead call; Pnoy, FVR, Drilon and bishops oppose

MANILA – Tension continues to mount in Mindanao following the massacre by Muslim rebels of 20 military officers and men in Al-Barka, Basilan and the killing of 17 more soldiers and civilians in successive clashes in Zamboanga Sibugay and Lanao del Norte last week, bringing the death toll to 37 with 30 wounded.

The rampage followed the killing of an Italian priest in North Cotabato, the third Italian priest slain in Mindanao.
Many officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) want to launch retaliatory attacks on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels believed to be responsible for the attacks, but their commander in chief, President Benigno Aquino III, readily ruled out an all-out war against the rebels and lawless elements in Mindanao, saying peace talks will be pursued.

Aquino presided at a military command conference in Camp Aguinaldo following the attacks in which he reiterated his call for peace, amidst the calls from leaders headed by former President Joseph Estrada, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense secretary; Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former police chief; and Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former Armed Forces chief of staff, for attacks on the rebels to punish those behind the killings.

President Aquino said an all-out war would only shed more bloodshed in Mindanao, not only of the combatants but civilians caught in the crossfire.
Aquino even sacked some military officers who were believed responsible for the military debacle in Basilan. An AFP spokesman was also sacked for reportedly helping fan the flame of anger against the rebels by calling for an all-out war. The President’s decision allegedly lowered the soldiers’ morale and triggered rumors of a possible coup which Malacanang simply shrugged off.

Aquino’s  ”no all-out war” but “all-out justice” policy, however, got support from leaders and officials headed by former President Fidel V. Ramos, a former general and defense secretary; Sen. Franklin Drilon and Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel even as Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV called for a Senate hearing and Rep. Danilo Suarez for a House hearing on the Basilan massacre in which promising officers who were products of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) were killed.

The influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines also rejected calls  for an “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), according to  Tandag Bishop and CBCP president Nereo Odchimar.

After an emergency meeting with the CBCP Permanent Council, Bishop Odchimar  stressed, however, that the perpetrators of the attacks in Basilan and some other Mindanao provinces should be brought to justice.

“The reactions are valid, and the perpetrators of these dastardly acts must indeed be pursued relentlessly and brought to justice,” Odchimar said. “We affirm the general pulse of our brother Bishops in Mindanao which is to continue the peace negotiations despite these recent setbacks.”

“Nobody wins in a war; let us renounce violence; let us not allow these violent acts of lawless elements to provoke us to further violence,” Odchimar said.
Sulu Governor Sakur Tan also said  he is fully behind the President for the continuance of the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front despite the call from other sectors for the Chief Executive to declare an all-out war following the wave of attacks by combined MILF forces and Moro bandits in Basilan and Central Mindanao the past few days.

Congressman Pangalian M. Balindong (2nd District, Lanao del Sur) also supported the no all-out war policy of the President.
Nineteen Army Special Forces soldiers were killed in the ambush by MILF rebels and bandits in Al-Barka, Basilan last Tuesday. Fourteen other soldiers were also wounded.

The MILF rebels sustained six killed as they surprised the soldiers who were to serve an arrest warrant for a wanted terrorist linked to the beheading of 10 soldiers in 2007.

MILF forces again launched an attack on Sunday in Basilan and Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte, killing five civilians and two soldiers. The military also reported that MILF rebels seized two schools in Zamboanga Sibugay over the weekend.

The wave of attacks have triggered clamor from various groups for the military to declare an all-out war against the MILF, but President Aquino rejected the idea as this would only shed more bloodshed in Mindanao, not only of the combatants but civilians caught in the crossfire.

Sulu Governor Tan said the wisdom of the President “in deciding against an all-out war against the MILF deserves the undivided support of all peace-loving peoples in the region.”

The Sulu governor said he made consultations with fellow provincial governors in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the local chief executives in Sulu, community leaders and sectoral groups about this serious matter.

“War mongering will only worsen the situation and stoke sentiments that are divisive and counter-productive,” Tan said, citing that “the gains achieved thus far in the peace process as defined in the Mindanao peace framework should be preserved and peaceful means of engagement with concerned group(s) should be continued.”

 “Sobriety is called to fore in these trying times and patience should prevail to give peace a surviving chance,” Tan said. “War is not the path to peace!”
Senator Trillanes said the Senate should look into the possible blunder of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) leadership when the soldiers entered the ‘areas of temporary stay’ of the MILF while pursuing the suspects in a kidnapping in Al-Barka, Basilan last October 18.

Trillanes, himself a former Philippine Navy officer, said he  believed that many military officials should explain the Basilan clash.

The lawmaker also wanted to investigate the existing ceasefire agreement between the government peace panel and the MILF.

Pimentel said that while he understands the sentiments of the military and the families of the soldiers who had died in recent clashes with MILF rebels, “we should look at the overall picture and seek lasting peace even as we demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

The senator from Mindanao also reiterated his earlier call for the MILF to seriously consider a unilateral declaration of permanent cessation of armed hostilities, following the example of the Basque separatists in Spain after 40 years of fighting the Spanish government.

“I am not asking the MILF to surrender. I am asking them instead to show sincerity in uplifting Muslim Filipinos from poverty,” Pimentel said.

Senator Drilon  expressed support to President Aquino’s move to reject calls for an all-out war against the MILF, believing that the Chief Executive will exercise strong political will in pursuing a lasting peace in Mindanao.

Several lawmakers, including President Aquino’s ally Senator Panfilo Lacson and Senate President Pro-Tempore Jose Jinggoy Estrada, pushed for the declaration of all-war against the MILF rebels.

On the other hand, Senators Manuel Villar, Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero and Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan are pushing for the suspension of the peace talks and investigate first the Basilan encounter.

Pangilinan said the ceasefire agreement with the MILF should be reviewed, adding the mechanisms of the peace talks should be strengthened to cover loopholes, specifically on the provisions of the ceasefire agreement.

Pangilinan said that unless the loopholes in the provisions on ceasefire violations are addressed, he fears that violations will continue and more lives will be lost.

“Ceasefire violations are a hindrance to genuine peace talks. The strengthening of mechanisms against such violations is crucial to both parties moving forward with the peace negotiations. This must include provisions on bringing to justice those perpetrators who, with their actions — regardless of their motives — have resulted in the loss of lives,” Pangilinan said.

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