MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE 2) Defying calls by the Catholic Church and various groups, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has vowed to pursue offensives against the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group in southern Philippines, saying that the extremist group should be punished for the death of the soldiers.
But at the same time, the President warned that the ongoing military offensive in Mindanao might prompt the Muslim extremists to sow terror elsewhere in the country.
US-backed troops bombarded Muslim rebel strongholds with artillery on Basilan Island Sunday, a day after 15 Marines and 40 militants were killed in a fierce clash, officials said.
The Marines were killed when their unit attacked a jungle hideout of the Abu Sayyaf near Basilan’s remote Ungkaya Pukan town, sparking a daylong clash during which an air force pilot also died when his helicopter crashed at sea, the military said.
The military claimed that about 40 Abu Sayyaf insurgents were killed, including two commanders who allegedly took part in last month’s beheadings of 10 Marines on Basilan.
In nearby Jolo Island, troops raided a suspected Abu Sayyaf safe house in Indanan township early Sunday and took into custody 19 men, women and children, army Major General Ruben Rafael said. After questioning, 14 were released and investigators were trying to determine if the other five were Abu Sayyaf gunmen, he added.
“Hindi tayo aatras sa pakikibaka upang mabigyan ng katarungan ang ating mga Marines, at upang mabigyan ng kapayapaan at kaunlaran ang bayan [We are not going to back down in the fight so that we can give justice to our Marines and to bring peace and progress to our country],” Arroyo said in an opening statement Tuesday at the meeting of the National Security Council in Malacañang.
“While we understand calls to stop the military offensives, we should also understand that our country won’t have security if we will not be able to give justice to our soldiers who died fighting for the Republic. Instead, the terrorists will be emboldened if they will not be made to pay for their criminal act against our heroic soldiers,” Arroyo said in Filipino.
“With the victory of our troops and police against terrorists in Basilan and Sulu, it is not farfetched for them to attempt to sow terror in other parts of the country,” Arroyo said. “That is why I have ordered our national police and armed forces to coordinate with local governments and the people to safeguard our cities and communities against any terrorist plot.
Arroyo’s statement came amid calls to end the bloodbath in Basilan and Sulu provinces.
Basilan’s Catholic Bishop Martin Jumoad called the deaths of 15 soldiers in the weekend fighting in Basilan “a waste of life.”
The 59-strong “Mindanao bloc” in the House of Representatives joined the clamor to stop the military offensives and in a series of meetings, agreed to support only “selective operations” targeting only members of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, according to Representative Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro.
In Tuesday’s statement, Arroyo also appealed to the public not to be swayed by propaganda seeking to divide the Armed Forces and to promote “selfish politicking.”
“In our fight against enemies who threaten our peace and progress, it is important that we unite and not be swayed by those who seek to divide our Armed Forces and country through deceitful and false propaganda,” she said in Filipino.
“Our only country is facing chaos. Let us not surrender her to our enemies who seek only to destroy and promote selfish interests,” she said.
She also rallied the people to support the soldiers, who she said were putting their lives on the line to defend democracy and to pave the way for economic development in the region.
“Ongoing operations against rearguard actions of a despised and defeated group are meant to clear the path for these provinces’ journey to peace and progress, which terror has delayed for so long,” she said.
While on the warpath against the Abu Sayyaf, Arroyo said peace efforts with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would be pursued although this Wednesday’s talks in Malaysia have been cancelled.
MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said the meeting was postponed for unclear reasons.
Chief government negotiator Rodolfo Garcia said he sought the postponement to give him more time to consolidate data and the government’s position.
Arroyo said she expected talks to resume next month. She also announced the holding of a peace and security summit on August 23 and 24 in Bohol as an initiative of the local government to secure peace in the region.
Arroyo ordered a fresh offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, after it was implicated in the July 10 beheadings. The MILF admitted its rebels killed 14 Marines during the clash, accusing them of encroaching into a rebel stronghold, but denied involvement in the beheadings.