Reject miltary’s ultimatum
MANILA, Philippines –(UPDATE) The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has rejected the military’s Sunday ultimatum to surrender its men who were allegedly behind the beheading and mutilation of several Marines in Basilan earlier this month, as it warned that military action could scuttle peace talks.
MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal also warned that violence could spread outside Basilan, should the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) insists on “punitive actions” against those who killed 14 Marines and beheaded 10 of them in Al-Barkah, Basilan last week.
The 12,000-strong MILF, which has a three-year-old truce in place, admits its forces attacked the Marines after they entered MILF territory without advance notice, but denies any role in the beheadings.
Although he repeated the denial on Sunday, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said any MILF forces found to be involved in the beheadings would be punished by the rebels themselves, and not turned over to the government.
“If after investigations, MILF forces are found out to be guilty, they should still be turned over to us for their punishment as spelled out under the ceasefire,” he said.
The MILF spokesman also said peace talks with the government, which have been stalled since last year over territorial disputes, were now on the verge of total collapse.
“We are prepared for any eventuality because they no longer respect the peace process,” he said.
“It will have a big effect on the peace process,” Iqbal said of the planned military offensive, adding, “We are holding the military responsible if this escalates in other areas.”
“We are not warning them; we are just stating the facts; that’s a possibility,” Iqbal said in a phone interview.
Armed Forces Chief General Hermogenes Esperon Jr has maintained that any military action will target the Marines’ attackers, not the entire MILF organization.
“We are not going to war. We are going to punish the beheaders,” he said in a mobile phone text message.
On Saturday, Esperon said the hunt for the Marines’ killers would be launched at an “appropriate time” after his Sunday ultimatum expires.
Should the military attack MILF positions, Iqbal said they would react in “self-defense.”
He said MILF chairman Al Hadj Murad has order all his men, especially in Basilan, to be on “high alert.”
Iqbal reiterated that an MILF investigation has cleared its men over the beheadings and that surrendering its men who were behind the assault on the Marines was not provided for under the rebels’ ceasefire agreement with the government.
“We cannot turn over our force. There is no moral basis because that is a legitimate encounter,” he said.
Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro insisted the deadline would not be extended.
“The message would be a reiteration of the call for the MILF to present the perpetrators of the barbaric act,” Bacarro said.
The Marines have bolstered their forces in Basilan to more than 2,000 while a company from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s elite presidential guards is also set to be deployed to the area, officials said.