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Monday, February 05, 2007

AFP resumes ops vs Sayyaf after release of MNLF ‘hostages’

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) yesterday resumed its offensive operations against the al-Qaeda-linked local extremist group Abu Sayyaf in Sulu after suspending it on Sunday to ensure the safety of members of a government peace negotiating panel who were held “hostage” by a Muslim separatist group inside their camp in a town in the island province on Friday.

According to Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo, chief of the Armed Forces Western Command, the military has continued its offensive operations against the Abu Sayyaf after halting it a day before after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) freed some 20 members of the government peace advocates and their security aides.

The party of peace negotiators led by Undersecretary for the Peace Process Ramon Santos and AFP National Capital Region command chief, Major Gen. Mohammad Benjamin Dolorfino, were released around 4:30 a.m. Sunday after being detained by the rebels inside their camp in Bitan-ag, Panamao town for two days.

MNLF commander Ustadz Habier Malik reportedly barred the group from leaving the camp until he got the assurance of the Philippine government for a definite date for the proposed tripartite meeting between the government, the rebel group and the Organization of Islamic Conference.

Dolorfino, a Muslim convert, and Santos had flown in for talks about a shaky 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF.

But both the rebel hosts and their government executive guests, however, denied it was a hostage situation as they clarified that the peace panel officials were merely “invited” to extend their stay in the MNLF camp to further discuss the peace deal, which most Muslims say the government has not been abiding by as it has continued to neglect the plight of the poor-dominated southern region of Mindanao.

Dolorfino said Malik sought for the government to put down in black and white its confirmation of a set date for the tripartite talks to be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia after the state earlier twice asked for a postponement of the meeting.

Dolorfino, a former deputy chief of the AFP Southern Command, earlier denied the MNLF was seeking the release of its jailed founder, Nur Misuari, to attend the proposed meeting in Saudi.

Cedo said upon hearing of the news of the peace panel officials’ release, the military quickly resumed its operations against a band of Abu Sayyaf gunmen who are hiding along with two wanted Indonesian members of the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the jungles of Sulu as it cannot afford to let up in its campaign to crush them.

He said it is imperative for the AFP to pursue its objective under “Oplan Ultimatum,” a plan to box in and “destroy” the militants in Sulu within six months time.

The oplan, or operation plan, includes a military dragnet being put up all over the island province’s shores to prevent the extremists from escaping out of Sulu.

Cedo said the military decided to suspend its offensives against the Abu Sayyaf group earlier Sunday to avoid possibly complicating the purported hostage situation as MNLF rebels may be prompted to react drastically once they got wind of military operations near the camp in Panamao.

During their extended stay in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp, Malik reportedly also discussed with the government peace team the alleged misencounter between Marine troops and MNLF fighters in Patikul town, Sulu last Jan. 18, where nine of the rebels were killed.

The Marines insisted that the group they had fought with were from the Abu Sayyaf, not the MNLF, as one of the captured bandits had testified.

But Cedo acknowledged the slain gunmen were MNLF rebels.

“They were mistaken (for Abu Sayyaf bandits). The MNLF people have admitted that,” Cedo said.

The six-month-old military offensive in Sulu has resulted in the deaths of Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani, the group’s alleged second-in-command, Jainal Sali alias Abu Sulaiman, and several sub-commanders.

Authorities are pursuing other Abu Sayyaf leaders — Radullan Sahiron and Isnilon Hapilon — and two JI explosives experts — Umar Patek and Dulmatin, who are the alleged masterminds of the bomb attacks in the tourist resort island of Bali in Indonesia in 2002 that killed over 200 mostly foreigners.

Patek and Dulmatin reportedly have been wounded in recent encounters between their group and government forces.

The MNLF is the oldest of four Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines. Disillusionment with the implementation of the 1996 peace deal has encouraged some members to defect to other groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF.

The 57-member OIC, which helped broker peace between Manila and the MNLF, had originally scheduled a meeting last year and then later this month on how to salvage the agreement, but the Philippine government had asked for a postponement of them.

The OIC has said it would like Misuari, also a former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, to attend the meeting.

Misuari had led a bloody rebellion against the government in 2001 over what he said was the failure of the government to fulfill its obligations under the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF. After being arrested, he was charged with rebellion and is presently under house arrest in New Manila district in Quezon City.

Recently, the government has shown more leniency toward Misuari, still a highly influential figure in the South, moving him last year from a military camp in Laguna province a few hundred kilometers south of Manila to his present detention place.

The Philippine National Police yesterday lifted a heightened alert it put up all over the country on Saturday due to the alleged hostage situation in Sulu. Gina Peralta-Elorde

Daily Tribune
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