by WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL AND AL JACINTO
REPORTER AND SENIOR CORRESPONDENT
Malacañang is yet to begin reviewing the draft of the law that seeks to establish peace through a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, but some kinks have emerged as members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have reportedly aided Abu Sayyaf rebels in engaging soldiers in fierce clashes last week in Basilan.
Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista confirmed that MILF members and Abu Sayyaf rebels fought side by side against the military. Two soldiers and 10 rebels were killed in the encounters in the towns of Tipo-Tipo and Ungkaya Pukan. Reports said 29 soldiers were also injured.
The MILF on Tuesday admitted that four of those slain were its members. The group denounced the killing, which happened just two weeks after the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed to end the decades-old conflict in Mindanao.
Bautista clarified that the decision of the MILF fighters to join the Abu Sayyaf was not made by the MILF leadership.
“It was not the MILF per se but only individual members because they are relatives [of some Abu Sayyaf members]. We are in touch with the MILF,” he told reporters.
Still, Bautista said the MILF members who fought alongside the Abu Sayyaf rebels are also criminally liable and “the MILF should deal with them.”
He added that military operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) will continue.
The ASG is behind kidnap-for ransom and extortion activities in the South. It was classified as a terrorist group by the United States Department of State.
The clash between members of the 104th Infantry Brigade and the combined force of the ASG and MILF took place on Thursday in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan. It was followed by two days of sporadic fighting.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the group engaged by the military was led by ASG Commander Fujuri Indama, one those responsible in the July 10, 2007 ambush of a military convoy also in Tipo-Tipo that left 14 Marine soldiers dead, 10 of them beheaded.
Fierce fighting erupted last Friday after troops stormed an Abu Sayyaf lair and clashed with about 60 militants.
“We were running after the ASG, and we told the MILF through our mechanisms that we are going to launch enforcement operations and they supported that. They have members in some areas where they [MILF] have no control, and these members have relatives who are Abu Sayyaf [members] [and] they probably joined [the fighting] in their individual capacity, not as MILF [as an organization], as relatives. The Armed Forces and the MILF are talking, so it’s very clear,” Bautista also told reporters while visiting wounded troops in Zamboanga City.
He defended the MILF, saying the country’s largest Muslim rebel group had no participation in the clashes.
“We have an agreement with the MILF and it is working and we are talking with their commanders during the operations and they support our operations. We know that the MILF is an irregular force, sometimes a member will have a relative who is a member of the ASG,” Bautista said.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said they are verifying reports that as many as 32 rebels were killed and wounded in the fighting.
“All these [reports] came from the ground,” Tutaan also told The Manila Times.
Despite the massive military assault, the militants escaped, but the military said operations against the Abu Sayyaf will not stop.
The Army said the offensive targeted Abu Sayyaf leaders Puruji Indama, Nurhasan Jamiri and Isnilon Hapilon, but there were no reports whether they had been killed. Some 200 soldiers had taken part in the offensive.
But the MILF also on Tuesday said four of its fighters were slain in the Basilan clashes.
“Four of our members were martyred,” MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar also told reporters.
The MILF has asked an international committee monitoring a ceasefire between the Philippines and the rebel group to investigate who was to blame for Friday’s violence, Jaafar said.
The fighting broke out two weeks after the MILF signed a political settlement to end more than four decades of an armed conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the mainly Catholic nation’s Muslim South.
The peace deal aims to create an autonomous Muslim area in Mindanao by early next year, with the MILF expected to disarm and put up candidates for a regional parliament in May 2016.
Jaafar said the government and the MILF are currently enjoying a “honeymoon.”
“We do not want this agreement to be disturbed by such unwanted incidents initiated by the military,” he added.
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