Basilan folk flee homes as fight looms

By Julie Alipala, Alcuin Papa
Last updated 02:34am (Mla time) 07/23/2007

MARINES have begun deploying on Basilan island and residents have started to flee their homes in the face of defiant Moro rebel announcements that there will be no compliance with the military ultimatum for the surrender by Sunday of those responsible for the grisly killing of 14 soldiers.


“We are not going to war,” said Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in a text message to reporters in Camp Aguinaldo Sunday. “We are going to punish the beheaders.”


Mohaqher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Sunday that the MILF was rejecting government demands to turn over fighters involved in the July 10 ambush in Basilan during which 10 of the 14 Marines killed were subsequently beheaded and mutilated–an act denounced by officials as “barbaric” and contrary to the norms of war.


The soldiers were searching for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi when they were ambushed by MILF rebels, allegedly assisted by al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf bandits. Bossi, 57, was freed on Thursday after 40 days’ captivity in Karomatan, Lanao del Norte.


Iqbal said there was no “moral basis” for the government demand because the killings happened during a “legitimate encounter” and there was no provision for such a demand even in the ceasefire accord between the MILF and the Philippine government.


“We will wait for the aggressors to come,” he said. “Our fighters in Basilan will now invoke our right to self-defense, which is God-given to anyone who is attacked right in his home.”


Residents flee
Bas Sattar Ali, an MILF member and representative to the Basilan’s ceasefire monitoring team, said rebel forces numbering “thousands” had been instructed to maintain a defensive position.


“If we are being fired at, we will not fire back. But if the government soldiers enter our territory, we will defend it to our last breath,” Ali told the Inquirer in a phone interview.


Mayor Jakilan Karam said most of the 10,000 residents in his town of Albarka were staying but some residents in the barangays of Ginata, Dinapa, Makalang and Linungan had fled their homes.


Acting Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales on Saturday ordered the military to mount punitive action against those responsible for the beheading of the soldiers unless the MILF surrenders them by Sunday.


But as time ticked, only defiant statements came from MILF spokespersons.


Brig. Gen. Ramiro Alivio, 1st Marine Brigade commander in Isabela, said he was waiting for the signal from higher-ups on when to launch the punitive action.


“We are just buying time right now. We cannot declare when and how, it’s operational in nature,” Alivio said.


No deadline extension
Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo earlier said the ultimatum for the MILF to turn over those who were involved in the beheading would end Monday. He said the military did not have any plan to extend the deadline.


“The MILF leadership already knows our intention, that we have given them a time limit for them to understand what will be the consequence if they will not surrender the people who murdered our soldiers,” he said.


But Eid Kabalu, speaking for the MILF, said it had not been “determined if indeed MILF forces were behind the beheading.”


“That’s why we have to let the investigation begin. If war erupts, this will not be the making of the MILF,” Kabalu said.


A source in the military said command conferences had been going on since last week as plans for an operations against the MILF were being discussed.


Another source, a ranking official, said five Marine battalions had been dispatched to Basilan. Several battalions have also been deployed to the Lanao provinces for a possible outbreak of violence in Central Mindanao.


Basilan Rep. Wahab Akbar, in a phone interview on Saturday night, said while he could not prevent a possible military operation in his province, he did not want clashes to happen and cause displacement of thousands of civilians.


Akbar said he had met with Gov. Zaldy Uy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao on contingent measures for civilians and affected communities.


Fr. Ramon Ma. Bernabe, provincial head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Philippines and former president of Norte Dame University in Cotabato City, said an impartial investigation should be “given a chance to work, according to the mechanisms of the prevailing ceasefire agreement.”


Administration Sen. Richard Gordon also appealed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference to exercise its influence on the MILF to help pacify the situation in Mindanao.


Gordon also joined the clamor for the AFP to give time to the tripartite body tasked to investigate the July 10 ambush.


“Whoever did that is an outcast, an outlaw,” Gordon said, condemning what had been widely described as a “barbaric act.”


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