Some 300 Filipino policemen, led by Basilan island police commander Salik Macapantar, hunt down Tuesday July 31, 2007 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels tagged as behind the beheading of ten of 14 marines soldiers killed in fierce fighting in the mountain town of Al-Barka. Police said it has warrants for the arrest of 130 suspected MILF and Abu Sayyaf militants implicated in the gruesome murder on July 10. Filipino defense and security officials say they are reviewing the names in the warrants. The MILF is currently negotiating peace with Manila. (Mindanao Examiner Photo Service)
Some 300 policemen searched houses in the village of Guinanta in Basilan’s Al-Barka town, a known stronghold of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, but returned to their base later in the day without any arrest.
“It looks like the rebels have fled their homes and could be hiding to elude arrest,” the island’s police chief Salik Macapantar told the Mindanao Examiner.
Police said it has warrants for the arrest of some 130 suspected MILF and Abu Sayyaf militants implicated in the gruesome murder on July 10.
Police forces also searched an MILF training camp in the mountain town, but the place was abandoned. An obstacle course and several empty thatched huts were spotted in the area.
Government soldiers were also seen guarding a mosque in Guinanta village.
The MILF, which is negotiating peace with the Arroyo government, denied beheading the soldiers and called for an international human rights group to investigate the incident.
The fighting erupted after some 100 soldiers entered an MILF territory in search for a kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi after military intelligence reports said the clergy was being held by rogue rebels.
The reports turned out to be false because Bossi was freed by rebels July 19 in Lanao del Norte province in Mindanao island. The priest said he was never brought to Basilan, but stayed most of his captivity in the town called Karomatan.
Philippine military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon has demanded the MILF to surrender those involved in the killing and return the weapons it seized, but the MILF was defiant and said it would not yield any of its fighters.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF peace negotiator, said the fighting was a legitimate encounter and warned any attack on the rebel group could escalate and may hurt the seven year old peace talks.
Filipino acting Defense chief Norberto Gonzales has threatened to launch punitive actions against the MILF in Basilan if they do not surrender the rebels behind the murder.
Gonzales flew to Zamboanga City and Basilan island where he met with senior military and police commanders about the impending punitive actions.
He said the government would also review the charges against the rebels after learning that the police implicated 130 people in the beheading of the ten marine soldiers.
The MILF and the government cease-fire committees were also investigating the incident.
The MILF is the country’s largest Muslim rebel group fighting the past three decades for a separate homeland in the restive southern region of Mindanao. (Mark Navales)