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Cries for peace ring in southern Philippines amid the roar of war
Publication Date : 30-01-2014
Aquino vows to crush militants opposed to the peace deal
Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great!) on Wednesday punctuated musical performances by Moro talents at the town plaza where some 2,000 people gathered to celebrate the signing of the final deal that sealed an agreement to end the decades-long Moro insurgency in Mindanao.
In Manila, however, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III vowed to crush militants opposed to the imminent peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as the death toll from a military assault on them in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces rose to 38.
Military officials said last night the troops overran a stronghold of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a hardline splinter faction of the MILF, in the village of Ganta in Shariff Saidona town, Maguindanao.
“The Armed Forces … (are) going on these operations to prevent lawless [elements] from inflicting harm on our population, and to seriously degrade their abilities to again act as (peace) spoilers,” the president told reporters.
The government wrapped up peace talks with the MILF, the biggest Moro rebel group, on Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, then quickly deployed the military against the BIFF.
“’Nya den ba su kalilintad (Peace is here),” said a man in his early 30s as he grabbed an unattended microphone after a kulintang (native musical instrument) rendition at the Pikit plaza, which drew a festive and predominantly Muslim crowd from the Maguindanao indigenous group.
Not far from the place, other Moros were terrified as fighting dragged to a fourth day between soldiers and the BIFF, which split from the MILF in 2008 to pursue a path to Islamic independence. At least 10,000 civilians have reportedly fled from clashes in Datu Piang, Shariff Saydona and Sultan sa Barongis, all in Maguindanao, and in Pikit.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) said an artillery shell fell in an area near an encampment of displaced residents in Sitio (subvillage) Madtalbayug in Datu Piang on Tuesday. No one was reported hurt, MinHRAC said, but the evacuees had to scamper for safety toward the poblacion area.
A government artillery barrage was also launched in the nearby town of Datu Salibu early Wednesday, said MinHRAC executive director Zainudin Malang.
Col. Dickson Hermoso, 6th Infantry Division spokesman, said on Wednesday that the manhunt for 27 BIFF leaders facing criminal charges “will continue in the next 72 hours”.
Of the 37 rebel fatalities reported, only 12 bodies were recovered by soldiers in the towns of Datu Piang, Shariff Saydona and Sultan sa Barongis, Hermoso said. Some of the dead were still in the marshland and could not be retrieved as BIFF snipers were firing at the troops, he added.
Abu Misry Mama, speaking for the BIFF, denied Hermoso’s claim. “Maybe the bodies they are referring to were civilian casualties hit during mortar attacks,” he said.
Mama claimed that the rebels captured a military armored personnel carrier in the village of Damabalas in Datu Piang on Wednesday.
“We will just get the .50-cal. machine gun in it, then we will burn it. We cannot use it because there are no roads in our bases,” Mama told the Inquirer on the phone.
Police and Army checkpoints have been put up along the Cotabato-General Santos highway and Cotabato City-Davao City highway.
“Our major highways remain passable and safe because we have successfully contained the BIFF in one area in the marshland,” Hermoso said.
In Pikit, a 27-year-old woman, who identified herself only as Salimar, said she wasn’t too young to know how war made the Moro people suffer. Clutching her 3-year-old daughter, she said she joined the celebration even if she barely knew the group that invited her over.
“I think they were called Women of Bangsamoro,” she said, giggling.
“I’m sorry, I felt so elated that peace is finally here. I really believe that what I went through as a child will not be experienced by my daughter,” Salimar said in the vernacular.
Machete for rifle
Babo Asal, who gave her age as 78, was weeping. “You know how you will immediately understand how I feel now that the talks had wrapped up with agreements? You only have to flee a battle zone once.”
An MILF fighter, who was among those who defended the rebels’ main base, Camp Abubakar, in 2000, said he had longed for the day he would drop his Kalashnikov rifle for a machete.
“I have a small farm that has not borne fruit for many years. Now it’s going to be productive,” Tong Kamad said.
Reacting to the BIFF’s insistence on independence, Kamad shook his head and said: “Have they not grown tired of the violence?”
Contrary to the BIFF’s belief that only independence will free the Moro people from poverty and oppression, Kamad said a working government under Manila could still prove to spell the difference. “With real Moro running the system, it will not be remote,” he said.
Under the planned peace accord, the MILF will have control over the autonomous Muslim region. Aquino aims for the peace plan to be implemented before he steps down in mid-2016.—With reports from Allan Nawal, Karlos Manlupig, Edwin O. Fernandez, Charlie C. Señase and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao; and agencies