Mindanao militarized in wake of terror wave

A new military operation on Mindanao and growing impetus for a sweeping “anti-terrorism” bill in Manila, both aimed at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—which denies involvement in the terror blasts which have targeted markets and other public places, leaving a dozen dead in recent days. From the Philippines’ Sun-Star Network, Oct. 11:

Moro rebels tied to Mindanao bombings
ZAMBOANGA CITY — The military have launched an extensive manhunt to arrest the culprits behind the series of bombings in Central Mindanao region that took place within two days, killing dozen of people and injured more than 30.

“Our manhunt is extensive. They are still within the area,” said Major General Nehemias Pajarito, chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao.

Pajarito said they already have the identities of some of the suspects, who they tagged as alleged members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and suspected of having alliance with the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group.

Pajarito said it was clear that some of the MILF rebels are involved based on the “signature” of the bombs that were used. He said the bombs that exploded comprise of mortar ammunition with battery and triggered by cellular phone.

“It is only them, the MILF, which has the capability and has the training in bomb-making,” Pajarito said based on the technical description of the bombs used.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon interviewed in Manila said it is possible that some groups out to sabotage the ongoing peace process between the government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) perpetrated the bombings.

Esperon said they are also considering the pronouncement of North Cotabato Governor Emmanuel Piñol that the MILF could be behind the attacks. He said MILF rebels opposed to the talks could be responsible for the attacks.

The MILF has denied accusations that they were involved in the series of bombings.

Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator, said in a statement posted on the MILF’s website, www.luwaran.com, that only those people or groups whose agenda is either “terrorism” or “with anti-peace stance” that can be behind these blasts.

Iqbal did not name any group, but clarified that the MILF, as a revolutionary and pro-people organization, cannot conduct terrorist’s activities, because it does not serve its purpose.

“There is no political gain for the MILF in terrorism, besides being a crime to God,” he stressed. The MILF, the remaining largest secessionist group, has been talking peace with the government.

An improvised bomb exploded at the Tacurong City public market in Sultan Kudarat last Tuesday, resulting in the killing of two and wounding of seven others.

Three hours later, another bomb exploded in front of the Municipal Hall of Makilala in North Cotabato, killing five persons and wounding 29 others.

Security forces recovered an unexploded improvised bomb about 200 meters from the site.

On Wednesday, an explosion happened in front of the South Seas Mall in Magallanes district in Cotabato City. The military said no one was reported killed or injured in the third blast.

When asked what are the other areas being targeted for bombings, Esperon cited Zamboanga City and Carmen town in North Cotabato. He said they have taken security precautions in the areas to deter the plot.

When asked if the terrorists are planning to strike in Metro Manila, Esperon said: “The security establishment always consider Metro Manila as a target but as of now, there is no specific report on planned bombings in Metro Manila.”

“Metro Manila could not be discounted as a target just like any city in the world. We cannot guarantee that nothing will happen in Metro Manila,” said Esperon, citing the radical Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) as among those who could stage the attacks.

Eastern Mindanao Command chief Rodolfo Obaniana said they received intelligence reports on the bomb targets and had immediately implemented security measures in their area of responsibility. But amid precautionary measures imposed by authorities, suspected terrorists still managed to inflict damage.

Obaniana said they received intelligence reports that a terrorist group is targeting the cities of Kidapawan and General Santos including the town of Carmen, North Cotabato.

But the bombs intended for these cities did not reach their destination due to strict security measures in the areas. The terrorists instead bombed Tacurong City and Makilala.

Esperon said the bombings in Mindanao is intended to divide the military attention in the ongoing operations in Sulu.

Thousands of government troops are hunting down since August 1 in the outskirts of Sulu ASG chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani and JI bombers Dulmatin and Omar Patek in a military operation plan dubbed as “Oplan Ultimatum.”

The AFP chief also said the bombings could have been staged by the JI and the Abu Sayyaf to avenge the arrest of Dulmatin’s wife, Istiada Oermar Sovie, who was nabbed by military intelligence agents along with her two children last Wednesday in a remote village in Patikul town, Sulu.

“The Abu Sayyaf really is the No. 1 group that we are looking at, including the JI. We got a lot of information when we got the wife of Dulmatin, Istiada and her two children,” Esperon said.

Sovie was flown to Metro Manila last Monday to face investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for violation of immigration laws after an initial tactical interrogation by the military intelligence experts in Zamboanga City.

“According to her (Sovie), there is really an intention to sow terror in different areas to get back at us (government) because we are supporting the worldwide coalition against terrorism,” Esperon said.

“It appears that the Abu Sayyaf and the JI were behind in retaliation to the arrest of Dulmatin’s wife. We are in receipt of reports that that was their intention. It’s also possible that this is connected with our relentless operations in Jolo since August 1,” he also said.

“They want our attention diverted. We believe they want to divert our operations, so that they will call off our operations in Jolo but our operations will be relentless,” added Esperon, referring to the Abu Sayyaf and JI.

The AFP chief said at least two encounters with the group of Janjalani were recorded since Monday night, the latest was in Patikul town that resulted in the killing of two soldiers and wounding of eight others. He claimed that the terrorists suffered undetermined number of casualties.

Esperon said the Western Mindanao and the Eastern Mindanao commands have been on alert even before the bombings. “In fact, they have been in that status since we launched ‘Oplan Ultimatum’ in Jolo,” he said.

“We know that while we are stepping up operations in one area and the group of Janjalani, Dulmatin and Omar Patek is cornered, we expect that they are going to take actions in other areas so ease the pressure in Jolo where they are trapped by our troops,” said Esperon.

At the same time, Esperon appealed to the legislators to pass the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill. “We hope that the Anti-Terrorism Bill would be passed. We have been debating on this for a long time already,” he said.

On the concerns of some legislators that the bill would be abused by the Arroyo government if passed into law, Esperon said those who are opposed to the measure should make moves to establish safeguards against possible abuses.

Lawmakers belonging to administration and opposition blocs in the House of Representatives criticized the twin bombings in North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The incident has in fact gave Malacañang allies to press further for the immediate passage of the anti-terrorism bill that is pending at the Senate.

Zamboanga del Sur Representative Antonio Cerilles said the twin bombing incidents should now convince opposition senators to soften their stand on the anti-terror bill and support its immediate passage.

Cerilles has particularly called the attention of Senator Aquilino Pimentel, one of the staunchest oppositionist of the anti-terror bill.

“Being a Mindanaoan himself, Nene (Pimentel) should be a staunch supporter of measures against terrorists who have been depriving the region of much needed peace and opportunities for progress,” he said.

“It is about time we enact it in view of the continuing terror attacks,” Representative Douglas Cagas, another administration congressman, said.

He said: “the Senate leadership should show its political will on the issue instead of allowing paranoid senators to dribble such an important legislation wile the nation watches the death toll in the terror attacks rise.”

Cagas also believed that the incidents were perpetrated by JI elements, and was triggered by the arrest of the wife of Dulmatin.

Anak Mindanao party-list Representative Mujiv Hataman, an anti-government congressman, appealed to authorities to stop issuing concluding and premature statements without the benefit of a comprehensive and exhaustive investigation in order not to complicate the stalled peace talks between the government and MILF.

“It is up to authorities to determine the truth behind the bombings. For whatever reasons, these attacks are acts of terrorism that treat civilian lives as collateral damage. We should not let these things pass without justice,” Hataman said.

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