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MILF pulling out of 6 remaining villages

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Pullout over by Friday night–truce monitor

By Joel Guinto, Lira Dalangin-Fernandez
Associated Press, INQUIRER.net
First Posted 12:53:00 08/08/2008

MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE 5) The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has started to pull out its forces from the last six villages they had occupied in North Cotabato province following negotiations between the rebels and government, an Army official said early Friday evening.

MILF guerrillas started vacating the villages by foot at around 4:30 p.m. and were headed to Maguindanao province, where they were originally based, said Brigadier General Reynaldo Sealana, who heads the government panel in the joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

The rebels were assembled in the villages of Dunguan and Dualing in Aleosan town, their jump-off point to Maguindanao, Sealana said, adding, the rebels would most likely take pump boats (motorized outrigger canoes) back to their base.

“They started to move this afternoon. They are moving by foot,” Sealana said in a phone interview from Aleosan, adding, “They will vacate the area completely tonight.”

Earlier, security officials had predicted the withdrawal to be over by Friday.

Sealana said the CCCH would check on Saturday morning if the pullout was completed.

Earlier, Sealana and his MILF counterpart, Toks Ibrahim, said they have agreed to form a Joint Monitoring Assistance Team (JMAT) to ensure the rebels’ complete pullout and avert anymore violence in the area.

The JMAT, they said, will “monitor the situation in the field” after the pullout and assist the once occupied communities.

Ibrahim also said both the MILF and government agreed to investigate the occupation of the villages after the rebels have “repositioned” their forces.

During the negotiations, Sealana said the rebels were reminded of a July 30 resolution, signed by himself, and his MILF counterpart, calling on the rebels to revert to their positions before July 27.

“We also told them that the [MILF] Central Committee agreed [to the pullout],” he said.

Sealana could not immediately give an estimate of the rebels who were pulling out.

The government estimated that some 800 MILF fighters under commander Umbra Kato occupied at least nine villages in five towns and gave a 24-hour ultimatum, which lapsed at 10 a.m. Friday, to leave the areas.

Before the ultimatum lapsed, the police said three villages were cleared of Moro rebels.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is in China for the opening of the Olympics, congratulated the officials for their efforts when informed of the rebel pullout.

Dureza also said that efforts are also underway to patch things up between North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Piñol and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Piñol protested an alleged threat by Esperon that government troops would not come to the aid of North Cotabato should the MILF attack it after the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against the signing of a memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain between the government and rebels on a petition filed by the province’s officials.

Earlier, officials said the rebels had yet to leave at least six villages that they had occupied, missing the government’s 24-hour deadline, which lapsed 10 a.m. Friday amid sporadic clashes.

Director Silverio Alarcio, chief of the PNP Directorate for Operations quoted ground commanders as saying “matatapos ito [The ground commanders say this will be over] within the day. There are positive developments.”

“It is part of the law enforcement process, there are negotiations. Let’s not disturb that. The final option, the use of force, [will come] after everything has been done, when there is no more hope, then we will use force to enforce the law,” Alarcio said.

An Army commander said troops are waiting for the go signal to “cross the invisible line” and move into the occupied villages should negotiations for them to peacefully leave fail.

“We are just waiting for orders to cross the line of departure, in tactical terms, that’s the invisible line that divides us and the enemy,” said Lieutenant Colonel Diosdado Carreon, chief of the 40th Infantry Battalion based in the province.

“When the ‘go’ is given, we will move forward. Kung nandun pa sila, away na ‘yan [If they are still there, hostilities will erupt],” Carreon said in a phone interview.

Without giving specifics, Alarcio said policemen were in the “vicinity” of the occupied villages.

“We are not foreseeing [the negotiations] to bog down because of the positive development. They were told [by the MILF leadership] to leave, it’s just a matter of convincing the hard-headed commanders,” Alarcio said.

MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar said an agreement to withdraw was reached in a meeting of the CCCH ahead of the 10 a.m. Friday deadline.

Jaafar said the drawdown would be gradual “because these people are armed and the civilians might panic if there is a sudden repositioning.”

The CCCH has proposed areas where the MILF could “reposition” and this was submitted to the group’s leadership for approval, MILF civil military affairs chief Eid Kabalu said in a phone interview.

Asked if the “repositioning” was ongoing, Kabalu said: “Hindi pa, ginagawan pa ng paraan [Not yet, we are finding a way to do it]. This will not be easy. There was a proposal of the CCCH and this was submitted to the MILF leadership.”

Asked if the deadline was extended, Kabalu said, “They [government] have flexibility and we appreciate that so much. They loosened the time frame.”

But authorities did not say categorically whether or not the deadline was extended.

“Negotiations are ongoing. There are positive developments. But regarding the deadline, I cannot answer if it was extended,” said Deputy Director General Emmanuel Carta, deputy national police chief for operations.

“Yung matitigas ang ulo ang andun, sinabihan na ng pullout, ayaw pa [The hardheaded ones remain. They were told to pullout but they refused. Emissaries were sent to the area to convince them,” Alarcio said.

Kabalu said MILF ground commanders were informed of the planned “repositioning,” but he said this would depend on the leadership’s action on the CCCH recommendation.

“We have the assurance of our commanders. The commitment is no untoward incidents,” Kabalu said.

Kabalu said the MILF did not retaliate from a mortar attack by government forces on their position in Sulok village, Aleosan town at around 9:30 a.m.

Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner Jr. denied the Army was behind the shelling, but he was not discounting the fact that it was initiated by militia forces in the area.

Brawner also claimed that the MILF attacked a militia detachment in Balike village, Midsayap town at around 5 a.m.

Kabalu said he had “no information” on the alleged attack.

Many of the villages occupied by rebels since last month are located in the marshy border between North Cotabato, a bustling agricultural province of more than a million people, and Maguindanao, a sprawling province of mostly Muslim residents where the MILF has large rural camps.

Asked why the rebels took the villages in the first place, Jaafar, the rebel official, said that several MILF members had “problems” in the area and other guerrillas joined them and established a presence there.

View article as posted on INQUIRER.net

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Written by joelguinto

FriUTC2008-08-08T08:45:07+00:00UTC08bUTCFri, 08 Aug 2008 08:45:07 +0000 22, 2006 at 12:45 am08

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