Thursday, October 20, 2011

Philippine troops recover missing soldiers; mount new operation vs. MILF rebels

Philippine troops prepare for deployment. (Mindanao Examiner Photo Service)

ZAMBOANGA CITY (Mindanao Examiner / Oct. 20, 2011) – Three soldiers who were reported missing in a clash in the southern Philippine province of Basilan have been recovered alive, security officials announced and said the military launched new operation on Thursday to capture Muslim rebels blamed for the deadly fighting.

Officials said the trio was found separately by government soldiers in the town of Al-Barka, scene of fierce clashes between the military and Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces.

Tuesday clashes left 19 soldiers and five rebels dead with both sides accusing each other of violating a fragile truce that could affect peace talks between Manila and MILF.

Rebel leaders said government troops stormed an MILF encampment in the village of Cambug. But security officials claimed that rebels ambushed troops sent to the area, a known stronghold of the MILF, to verify the presence of armed men.

Military spokesmen had given the media conflicting reports. They said troops clashed with MILF forces, but later insisted the smaller and notorious Abu Sayyaf militants with ties to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya was responsible for the ambush.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines have ordered an investigation into the fighting and so was the joint cease-fire committee of both the government and MILF peace panels.

“There is an investigation now. The (Office of the) Inspector General is investigating the incident,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, told the Mindanao Examiner.

He said there is an ongoing operation to capture the rebels responsible for the killings of soldiers. “There is an operation right now against them. They murdered our soldiers and that is no longer covered by the cease-fire agreement because it is purely a criminal act,” Cabangbang said.

He said the soldiers were ambushed far away from the so-called area of temporary stay of the MILF.

Von Al-Haq, a rebel spokesman, said: “We are not at fault here. The military violated the cease-fire agreement.”

He said the fighting in Basilan could be a ploy by the military to stall or derail the peace talks. “They know that there is an existing cease-fire agreement yet the military broke this truce and launch an operation in our area,” he said in a separate interview.

Al-Haq said war could erupt in Basilan should government forces attack any of its strongholds in the troubled province, just several nautical miles south of Zamboanga City.

“If they attack MILF positions then there could be war because our forces will have to defend themselves from aggression,” he said in a separate interview.

Manila is currently negotiating peace with the MILF and the fighting occurred after negotiations for a Muslim homeland failed in August.

Peace talks between Manila and the MILF ended in Kuala Lumpur in August 24 without any agreement that would put an end to decades of bloody fighting in Mindanao.

The Aquino government offered the rebels a wider autonomy in Mindanao through a referendum. The MILF, which is fighting for self-determination, said it would pursue a sub-state in Mindanao. (Mindanao Examiner)

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