‘SAF clash should be last setback to peace’
Jose Rodel Clapano (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - With the peace process possibly in peril amid calls for retribution against the killers of 44 elite police commandos in Maguindanao, the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels appealed yesterday to the nation to give peace a chance, warning that the alternative is “simply unthinkable.”

Both sides told a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur that two days of talks in Malaysia on disarming the rebels had made progress, and they vowed not to waver in implementing an accord on the voluntary surrender of weapons.

It was announced in the meeting the decommissioning of weapons and forces would begin this month.

The MILF has waged a decades-long insurgency in Mindanao, but an accord signed last year has raised hopes of a lasting peace.

“We want the Mamasapano encounter to be the last ugly turn in the road to peace,” chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in her opening statement at the press conference jointly held with the MILF peace panel.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal also expressed his group’s full commitment to the peace process.

Mamasapano is a remote village in Maguindanao where Special Action Force (SAF) policemen clashed with hundreds of MILF fighters for hours last Sunday. Aiding the MILF guerrillas were fighters of the radical Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

President Aquino, who must convince Congress to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), is under mounting pressure to strike back at the rebels.

“In the next few days we know there will be challenges before us,” Ferrer said.

She said the government would engage with lawmakers to keep the peace process on track.

Ferrer warned of dire consequences if the process is allowed to crumble. “The other alternative is simply unthinkable,” she said.

“It will bring chaos and bring about the rise of other groups (and) even more extremists with very radical ideologies,” Ferrer added.

“That is our message. Please stay the course with us. The road to peace is paved with good intentions but that road too is full of twists and turns. On Jan 25, we all witnessed an ugly turn of events,” she said.

“As in any war situation, civilians were also killed and for them we equally grieve. For them, these nameless, faceless villagers, we also grieve,” she said.

“We know that more than anything they wanted to be remembered in this way – as heroes, as heroes first and foremost,” she said, referring to the fallen SAF commandos.

“This is not the first ugly turn we have endured in this difficult journey to peace in Mindanao, to peace in our country. But we want it to be the last,” Ferrer said.

She stressed the peace panels are doing everything to keep the peace process on track.

The talks in Malaysia marked the first formal sit-down between the two sides since the killing of the 44 SAF men in Mamasapano last Sunday.

At Malacañang, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the Jan. 25 incident should not derail the peace process, particularly the passage of the BBL.

“We must remember the important lessons that we learned from the past and ask ourselves as to the best road to take for a brighter future,” he said.

While the Mamasapano carnage has triggered calls for the cancellation of the peace process, Coloma maintained that top government officials like Senate President Franklin Drilon, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno have remained supportive of it.

The MILF signed a protocol agreement on Thursday for disarmament, and both parties said they would go ahead with the symbolic handover this month of 75 high-powered guerrilla firearms.

They also vowed to strengthen existing ceasefire mechanisms to avoid future clashes.

The peace agreement signed last year would create an autonomous region to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) for the Philippines’ Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.

The conflict has condemned millions of people across Mindanao to poverty and created fertile conditions for Islamic extremism, with the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group and other hardline militants making remote areas their strongholds.

No terrorist coddler

In an ABS-CBN report, Iqbal denied his group coddled terror suspects Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Basit Usman, who were the targets of the SAF operation in Mamasapano.

Iqbal said it was the BIFF and not the MILF that was keeping the terrorists.

“The truth will show that we have not been coddling Marwan. Marwan was in the company of the BIFF, not the MILF,” he said in a press conference in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

“You cannot turn over something which is not in your possession,” he added.

The SAF men had just killed Marwan, who was carrying a $5-million bounty on his head, when they ran into an MILF and BIFF blocking force. The MILF said the “misencounter” would not have happened had the policemen “coordinated” their operation with the rebel group.

He said they also suffered casualties in the encounter, counting 18 dead on their side and 14 others injured, the ABS-CBN report said.

Iqbal released the names of the dead MILF men and expressed his condolences to the families of all those killed in Mamasapano.

“Rest assured that no amount of obstacles along the way can stop us from pursuing the path of peace in Mindanao,” he said.

He also appealed to the media not to fan the emotions of hatred.

“Bangsamoro have also suffered a lot as a result of several massacres. The encounter in Mamasapano wasn’t intended by either side – from side of government and MILF. It was a pure and simple misencounter,” he said.

ABS-CBN News also quoted Ferrer as saying that the investigations into the Mamasapano incident would continue, with members of the International Monitoring Team on a field verification mission in the areas concerned.

“We managed to come up with concrete solutions soberly. The results will not become immediately evident. We will remain under scrutiny. We will have to regain the people’s trust. Let our actions then speak louder than our words in due time,” she said.

Accountability

In the ABS-CBN report, government peace panel member Senen Bacani has urged those behind the botched Mamasapano operation to come out in the open and take responsibility.

“The ongoing investigation should bear out facts in terms of accountabilities on both parties. Whoever are accountable should be held responsible for their actions. In their heart of hearts, they know who they are. It doesn’t have to wait for results of investigations,” Bacani told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

“I think people know what to do when you’re accountable for something... You don’t need to wait for facts. Whoever is accountable should take necessary steps,” he added.

“Whoever he or she is, he or she must know what truth is. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t wait for the results of investigation,” he said.

Ferrer, for her part, maintained that the issue of amnesty and pardon would have specific parameters.

“Such will depend on the case. Even though you grant amnesty, we know under international humanitarian law, there are exceptions. Amnesty and pardon has always been part of reconciliation. We’re still discussing parameters,” she said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and Switzerland issued separate statements expressing sadness for the Mamasapano tragedy and extending condolences to bereaved families.

“The United Nations team in the Philippines joins in mourning those who lost their lives in the tragic incident of 25 January in Mamasapano in Mindanao, and expresses its condolences to the affected families.”

Switzerland it was “concerned and saddened” by last week’s violence in Maguindanao that left scores dead and the peace process in peril.

“It is Switzerland’s hope that this tragic event will not destabilize the ongoing peace process. More than ever, peace is needed now and under no circumstances should it be the ultimate victim of Sunday’s event,” the Swiss embassy said. With Pia Lee Brago

ABU SAYYAF IQBAL KUALA LUMPUR MAGUINDANAO MAMASAPANO MARWAN MILF MINDANAO PEACE PROCESS
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