KIDAPAWAN/MANILA, 14 March 2003 — Malaysia has asked both the Philippine armed forces (AFP) and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to exercise restraint amid fresh fighting that has forced over 40,000 people in Central Mindanao to flee their homes, a special envoy said yesterday.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made the appeal to President Gloria Arroyo’s special envoy, Roberto Romulo, during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur to discuss reviving peace talks with the Muslim rebels.
Romulo was sent to ask Kuala Lumpur to help convince the MILF to return to formal peace talks despite the renewed fighting.
In a statement released in Manila, Romulo said Badawi “reconfirmed Malaysia’s commitment to assist in the search for peace in the southern Philippines.”
“He cautioned, however, that both sides should exercise restraint and should work within the legal framework of the Philippine constitution,” the statement added.
President Arroyo said she was still pinning her hopes on Malaysia to get the MILF back to peace talks.
“We are still relying on Malaysia to be the third-party facilitator for the peace process with the MILF,” Arroyo said.
Malaysia was due to host peace talks between the MILF and Manila later this year but this was stalled after the military overran an MILF enclave, the so-called Buliok complex, near the southern town of Pikit in North Cotabato province last month.
Yesterday, military and the MILF exchanged widely conflicting casualty claims. The MILF also claimed to have recovered 80 percent of the complex, which spans parts of North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces.
A military spokesman said soldiers had killed at least 115 rebels since fresh hostilities erupted in Pikit on Sunday. Maj. Julieto Ando, spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division, said five soldiers were also slain.
Another 88 rebels were killed Monday and Tuesday, Ando said. He said that on Tuesday alone, at least 75 rebels were killed when the military dropped bombs on MILF rebel positions in the complex, which include the villages of Bago Inged, Kabasalan, Raja Muda, Bulol and Buliok.
Most of the slain rebels were “youthful-looking,” Ando said.
“This is alarming because most of the killed rebels were still very young. Their parents should check . . . The MILF is using these young members to attack us and get killed later and the military (is) compelled to fight them,” he said.
Mohaqher Iqbal, spokesman of the MILF’s central committee spokesman, accused the military of fabricating the casualty figures for “promotion purposes.”
Only 16 MILF fighters were killed, Iqbal said in an interview with the Catholic-run DXMS radio based in Cotabato City. He admitted that “scores” were also wounded when the military launched air assaults.
The military spokesman admitted that their casualty claims were not based on a body count but on reports sent by field commanders.
The AFP had been notorious for reporting high rebel casualty count in the past, especially in their encounters with the highly mobile communist guerrillas.
Iqbal said the MILF’s guerrilla tactics were paying off. Yesterday morning, he said, their fighters had completely overtaken military positions in the Buliok complex, killing six soldiers.
He said their fighters later decided to leave in keeping with their “hit and withdraw” tactic that is meant to wear out the enemy.
Iqbal noted that on Wednesday, the military had to use choppers, which landed near a mosque in Buliok, to pick up other casualties.
He said some of the MILF’s fighters were young because “they are forced to defend themselves against the aggression of the army.”
Iqbal said these “able-bodied teenagers” voluntarily joined the MILF because their parents were victims of military atrocities.
Plenty of Cadavers
Ando said the military had requested civilian officials in Pikit to help the military retrieve the cadavers of the slain rebels “so they could get a decent burial.”
He said although the rebels were enemies, the military could not stand the sight of bodies “littering around the Buliok complex.”
“We pity these teenagers. They appeared like high school (Citizens Army Training) cadets aged 15-20 years old,” he said.
Ando ridiculed Iqbal’s claim that the rebels had overtaken the complex, saying “the new breed of guerrillas only carries rifles and no extra bullets as compared to well-trained, well-armed army Scout Rangers and Marines.”
For the military, the only thing that could end the war “is for the MILF to stop its terroristic activities and return to the negotiating table.”
Iqbal said the MILF had one goal: “We want the military to surrender.”
None of the AFP and MILF claims could be independently verified.
But parish priest Fr. Bert Layson of Pikit town said what is certain is the rising number of evacuees.
“I don’t know when will this situation stop. We just hope that civilians will be spared,” Layson said. “We envy the ‘normalcy’ of the situation of the neighboring towns of Pikit. They don’t know that we are suffering here. Helicopters keep on coming. Cannons are being fired. And, life in the evacuation center is very distressing.
Foreign Arms Funding
In Manila, the military claimed that the MILF have been buying arms using foreign funds.
Documents recovered from Buliok complex last month revealed the rebels had made payments for machine guns, explosives, grenades and other battle hardwar, said military spokesman Col. Essel Soriano said.
The documents, declassified yesterday, comprised an arms purchase agreement in 1999 and invoices totaling nearly $2 million for the weapons, Soriano said.
The documents were signed by MILF political adviser Ghazali Jaafar and an alleged North Korean arms dealer named Rim Kyu Do with a Malaysian as witness, he said.
Soriano said the documents were found in a two-story building that had served as MILF leader Hashim Salamat’s headquarters in the complex.
It was not clear from where the MILF received money to acquire the weapons but Soriano said the discovery of the documents proved the MILF had long prepared for an “all-out war” with the government.
He said the MILF had funneled several millions for their procurement of military hardware, “possibly through the discreet local and foreign funding,” Soriano said without elaborating.
Meanwhile, the military said it is redeploying some of its forces fighting communist rebels in Mindanao to beef up troops already thrown into battle against the MILF.
Brig. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., AFP deputy chief of staff for operations, made this announcement after yesterday’s joint command conference of the AFP and the Philippine National Police, which was presided over by President Arroyo.
Addressing the command conference, Arroyo commended the military and police for the way they were handling the “controversies and grandstanding in media” that followed the military offensive in Buliok last month. “We are on the right course and we must keep to it,” she said.
Arroyo also said that “military field commanders have the authority to render tactical decisions within the areas of responsibility.”
“But we are investing them with the responsibility to be aware of, and sensitive to, the strategic implications of such decisions, at all times,” she said.
In a media briefing, Esperon said no fresh troops would be inserted into Mindanao from either Luzon or the Visayas, where military units are also engaged against the communist-led New People’s Army.
“It’s only a matter of rearranging and redeploying troops within Mindanao,” Esperon said.