Arroyo puts Basilan offensive on hold for 3 days for probe

By Joel Guinto
Last updated 06:16pm (Mla time) 07/27/2007

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — (UPDATE 7) President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has ordered punitive actions against the attackers who killed 14 Marines in Basilan on July 10 put on hold for three days to give way to an investigation by the a joint fact-finding team of the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).


At a command conference at Camp Navarro here, Arroyo gave the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) three days from Friday to determine who killed the Marines and beheaded 10 of them during a clash in Al-Barkah town, Armed Forces chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said.


He also said that, notwithstanding the reprieve given the MILF, Arroyo ordered the military will continue to launch operations against the extremist Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and other parts of Mindanao.


“Until such time that the results of the investigation come in, there should be no [punitive action],” Esperon told a news conference at the Edward Andrews Airbase.


But, he added: “We expect D-day on Tuesday.”


The military chief acknowledged that the three-day reprieve is meant to preserve peace talks between the government and the MILF.


Once the CCCH identifies the perpetrators and cases are filed in court, Esperon said the Basilan police would serve the arrest warrants with the military acting as a “strong back-up force.”


“By going through legal processes, we shall avoid unnecessary action and reaction,” Esperon said.


But he minced no words about his desire to punish the Marines’ killers.


“We must go full force and steadfast and uncompromising in punishing the beheaders [sic], the more that we allow this to pass without getting punished, we will be encouraging more beheading,” he said.


Esperon also said that it was “not a matter of who perpetrated [the beheadings] anymore.”


“It’s just a matter of punishing them so that people will not think that it is perfectly all right to behead, this barbaric act has no place,” he said.


Acting defense secretary Norberto Gonzales agreed, saying: “No more amnesty for beheaders this time and in the future.”


At least 130 MILF leaders and members were named in the arrest order issued by Judge Leo Jay Principe of the Basilan Regional Trial Court Branch 1 on Thursday.


Principe recommended no bail bond for the nine murder charges against the accused and P200,000 bail bond for each of them for the four counts of frustrated murder.


The military has said the warrant would be its “passport” to moving against the Marines’ killers.


Chief Inspector Danilo Bacas, information chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) police, said among those ordered arrested are Hamsa Sakandun, Nat Mudalan, Suhod Dimaya, Sulaiman Murata, Hadji Dan Asnawi, Lun Hadji, Rogie Indama and Nurhasan Jamin, all MILF or Abu Sayyaf leaders in Basilan.


During the command conference, Esperon said Arroyo also approved the procurement of mortar rounds and tubes to be used against the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf.


Arroyo, in a fatigue vest with the tag of commander-in-chief over a white shirt and Khaki pants, arrived at the Edwin Andrews Airbase before 10:30 a.m.


She was met by Esperon, Lieutenant General Eugenio Cedo, Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief, and Lieutenant General Romeo Tolentino, Army chief, among others.


The MILF appealed to the government Thursday, through the joint CCCH, to hold off punitive actions against the Marines’ attackers until the investigation has identified them.


The CCCH inquiry is set to start in Basilan also on Friday.


Police Director General Oscar Calderon said the police will spearhead the serving of the warrant against the suspects.


“We are the law enforcement agency so we will be the one to serve the warrant against the group,” Calderon said.


Esperon gave the go-signal for punitive actions after the MILF failed to surrender the Marines’ attackers last Sunday, the deadline given by the military chief.


The MILF took responsibility for the attack on the Marines in Al-Barkah town, saying the troops encroached on its territory, but denied beheading and mutilating the 10 dead troops.


Meanwhile, Malaysia and international donors appeared to be trying to stave off another conflict in the south, with chief Malaysian negotiator, Othman Abdul Razak, meeting with MILF chairman Al Haj Murad last Wednesday.


After that, the rebel chief ordered guerrillas to exercise “maximum restraint” and pledged their commitment to the peace process, according to guerrilla spokesman Eid Kabalu.


Donors Canada and Japan expressed alarm over a possible outbreak of hostilities in letters to the government this week, saying the fighting may prompt them to suspend aid operations in the south.


But Gonzales said the government would act as a “sovereign state” and that the donor countries’ concerns would not affect its decision on whether or not to move against the Marines’ killers.


“That [concern] will not affect our decision. We have expressed our gratitude to our friends for their help, but if we have to make a decision, we will do so as a sovereign state,” Gonzales said in a radio interview.


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