By Mama Gubal, Special to Arab News
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-02-21 03:00

MANILA, 21 February — The controversial video that Malacañang released Monday, showing what it said were Abu Sayyaf bandits beheading captives, had been shown by the Joseph Estrada administration in 1998 to drum up support for its “all-out war” against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu yesterday.

Kabalu said the MILF did not commit the gruesome murders. “When the same video was shown to businessmen and some religious groups in 1998, we were the ones identified as those beheading the soldiers,” he said.

Estrada portrayed MILF rebels as “devils”, Kabalu said, adding he believed the gunmen in the tape were Abu Sayyaf bandits.

Reporter Tony Velasquez said yesterday that he had viewed the same footage in August or September 2000 with then press secretary Ricardo Puno, and that he knew the atrocities were committed by the MILF.

Velaszquez said he and Puno viewed the tape after it was shown to members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which had been critical of Estrada’s military offensives against the MILF.

He added he had wanted to broadcast the footage but Puno, who was previously the head of ABS-CBN’s news department, found the “brutality of the scene ... to be too sensitive to be shown to the public.”

“Either the tape was misrepresented to then-pesident Estrada or is being misrepresented now to President Gloria Arroyo,” Velasquez said.

Arroyo said yesterday she had not yet seen the video but said the footage “was from Basilan, so it must be Abu Sayyaf.”

“I didn’t know about the tape in the first place,” the President said. “They just said they have a tape of the Abu Sayyaf and they want to show it. I have not seen it.”

The President’s spokesman, Rigoberto Tiglao, said: “As far as we know, it’s the Abu Sayyaf. In the long history of the MILF, we’ve never seen them or heard reports of them that they behead people.”

Armed Forces spokesman Brigadier General Edilberto Adan said the beheadings followed a clash with the Abu Sayyaf in January 1995 in which nine soldiers and two government militiamen were killed.

Adan also lashed out at critics who claimed the footage showed MILF rebels, accusing them of misleading the public. “If there are MILF members there, it just proves our theory that the MILF is with the Abu Sayyaf ... which is often the case. But this is the Abu Sayyaf,” he said in a telephone interview.

“They (critics) should not muddle the issue by saying that it’s the MILF ... We are showing (the footage) made by the Abu Sayyaf,” Adan said.

He said the footage was taken in Maluso, Basilan, in 1995, when the military was operating against the Abu Sayyaf.

Malacañang released the video Monday. The ABS-CBN late-night news aired it, as did GMA Network but with pixelized blurring.

The footage showed gunmen with machetes questioning a man kneeling on the ground, his hands tied behind him. The man was asked to pray as a gunman approached from behind and chopped the man’s head off. Another wounded soldier sprawled on the ground was also beheaded.

Arroyo told Tuesday afternoon the decision to release the video “was not done at my level ... but I am not objecting to it.”

She said the decision was an “operational matter” that her subordinates could make.

House of Representatives assistant minority floor leader Gilbert Remulla, who was an ABS-CBN reporter during the Estrada administration, said yesterday he had learned about the tape from his brother, Crispin Remulla, who was in Estrada’s Presidential Management Staff.

He said the tape had been seized by the military from an MILF camp in 2000, during the Estrada administration.

It was this same tape, Remulla said, that the previous administration showed to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, which was critical of the all-out war that then President Joseph Estrada had declared against the MILF.

Remulla accused Malacañang of twisting the facts to score propaganda points, saying it had deceived the public by claiming that the Abu Sayyaf was responsible, apparently to “justify American involvement in the military offensive against the bandits.”

Reached for comment, Grace de la Peña-Reyes, head of news operations at GMA Network, said that when the GMA news desk previewed the tape, several people “saw someone who looked like Khadaffy Janjalani (the current Abu Sayyaf leader).”

She added, “Some reporters who covered the Abu Sayyaf extensively saw someone who looked like one of Janjalani’s younger brother. Another reporter saw someone who looked like one of his contacts in Abu Sayyaf.”

A GMA official said the footage the network ran on Monday came from a source outside the government.

When Malacañang released a video of the beheadings on Tuesday, GMA compared it with the one provided by its source and saw that they were the same.

Former senator Orlando Mercado, defense secretary under Estrada, said that as far as he could recall, the footage showed Abu Sayyaf beheadings.

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