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80,000 flee as Moro fighters refuse to leave North Cotabato

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By Joel Guinto
First Posted 20:08:00 08/09/2008

MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE2) About 80,000 villagers have fled their homes as pullout of Moro fighters from North Cotabato ground to a halt Saturday, with the rebels “emotional” over stalled peace talks, and as clashes with government militiamen continued, officials said.

The Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) met Saturday evening to discuss plans to implement the withdrawal of hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels from five towns and at least nine villages in the central Mindanao province.

Hostilities have displaced 16,057 families, or about 80,000 individuals, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC).

“They are emotional because of the TRO. They are saying that if not for Manny Piñol, this would not have happened,” MILF Vice Chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said in a phone interview.

Jaafar was referring to the temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court that stopped the signing of a memorandum of agreement between Manila and the MILF that was meant to pave the way for a final political settlement to end MILF’s 30-year fight for an independent Islamic state.

The high tribunal issued the TRO August 4 on the petition of Piñol and several officials of North Cotabato. Under the deal, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) would be expanded by including 712 more villages.

“We are trying to calm them down. We are talking to them, explaining to them the primacy of the peace process and that it is the decision of the CCCH [for them to leave North Cotabato],” Jaafar said.

Asked if there was a time frame for the pullout, which the MILF calls a “repositioning” of troops, Jaafar said: “The [MILF] Central Committee is not fond of giving time frames. We think this will not drag on, this could be finished by tomorrow [Sunday].”
On Friday, the government gave the MILF rebels 24 hours to leave the occupied villages or risk being forced out by the military but they delayed their withdrawal citing security concerns
The civil military affairs chief of the MILF, Eid Kabalu, said that their troops clashed with militia men and Army forces in Tapodoc village, Aleosan town, while their position in Balike village, in Midsayap town was shelled.

“They feel betrayed, they are repositioning and yet they are being attacked,” Kabalu said in a separate phone interview.

Kabalu also accused the militia men of “sabotaging” the pullout.

On Friday, at around 5 p.m., MILF and militia forces happened clashed in Dunguan village, the rebels’ jump off point to Maguindanao province, where they were ordered to return or “reposition,” said Brigadier General Reynaldo Sealana, who chairs the government side of the CCCH.

“The CAFGU [Civilian Armed Forces Geographic Unit] and the CVO [Civilian Volunteers Organization] in the area, when they saw the MILF, thought that they were under attack, so there was an exchange of fire,” Sealana said in a phone interview.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. has mobilized concerned government agencies for relief efforts for the displaced residents, NDCC spokesman Anthoy Golez said in a text message to reporters.

A command post was set up in Libungan town “to facilitate a systematic relief effort,” he said.

Tulunan town had the most number of displaced families, 10,819 in 12 villages, followed by Aleosan with 3,273 families in six villages; Pikit with 1,034 families in five villages; Midsayap with 670 families in five villages; and Libungan with 261 families in three villages, Golez said.

The displaced residents were staying in their relatives houses, Golez said.

Teodoro, who chairs the NDCC, issued the order on the instruction of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is in Beijing, China for the opening of the 2008 Olympics, Golez said.

MILF rebels occupied several villages in North Cotabato in the last two weeks and were accused of burning houses, and seizing farm lands and livestock.

The rebels agreed to withdraw or “reposition,” but they have yet to complete the pullout as of Saturday evening, well beyond the expiration of the government’s 24-hour deadline at 10 a.m. Friday.

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Written by joelguinto

SatUTC2008-08-09T13:11:03+00:00UTC08bUTCSat, 09 Aug 2008 13:11:03 +0000 22, 2006 at 12:45 pm08

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