6 more bodies found at clash site

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

ZAMBOANGA CITY (4th Update, 4:30 p.m.) -- Search teams have recovered six more bodies of soldiers slain in Tuesday's encounter in Al-Barka, Basilan, bringing the death toll in government side to 19.

The bodies recovered Wednesday by a group led by Basilan Vice Governor Alrasheed Sakkalahul were among the 10 soldiers declared as missing-in-action following a nine-hour encounter between government troops and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels.

Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said the bodies were found at the clash site in Sitio Bakisung, Cambug village, Al-Barka municipality.


Cabangbang identified the leader of the rebel group as Dan Laksaw Asnawi, one of the 30 inmates who escaped from the Basilan provincial jail on December 30, 2009.

Asnawi was also involved in the beheading of 14 Marines in July 2007 in Barangay Ginanta, Al-Barka, the military official said.

The military spokesman said some members of the MILF participated in the firefight to help their relatives and, at the same time, "to get firearms."

He said the site of the encounter was not an "area of temporary stay" or ATS of the MILF, as claimed by its leaders. The ATS of the MILF is four kilometers away from the clash site, he said.

ZAMBOANGA. Wounded soldiers from Basilan province are assisted by their fellow troopers as they land at the southern port city of Zamboanga, Tuesday. (AP)

Authorities believe the eight soldiers are in the hands of the rebels. They asked a joint government-rebel ceasefire committee to allow troops to search for the missing soldiers in the Moro rebels' Al-Barka stronghold.

MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar, in a television interview, said only MILF fighters were involved in the firefight but denied that they captured government soldiers.

MILF spokesman Von Al Haq also said that rebels from his group have reported they are not holding any captives. Several Army soldiers apparently fled during the clash into nearby communities, Al Haq said.

Al Haq earlier said that government troops provoked the fighting by attacking the rebels in their Al-Barka stronghold in violation of the existing ceasefire. Army troops shelled the rebel stronghold after the initial clash, trapping villagers in the fighting, he said.

But Cabangbang said troops were deployed to check reports by villagers that a group of gunmen known to be holding kidnap victims had strayed in areas close to their communities. He said the troops did not intrude on the guerrilla stronghold, and were about two miles (four kilometers) from it when they were fired upon by the Moro rebels, prompting the troops to fight back.

Jaafar said the encounter would not have happened if only the government coordinated with the MILF.

The clash also left an already shaky ceasefire in jeopardy.

Under ceasefire rules, government troops should notify the Moro rebels first if they want to venture into guerrilla strongholds in search of criminals to prevent accidental clashes.

Jaafar said the ceasefire committee should look into the Basilan encounter.

Command conference

President Benigno Aquino III, in Manila, said that he will hold a command conference on Friday to discuss the recent encounter in Basilan.

“I have called for a command conference on Friday when the secretary of national defense arrives to precisely tackle the issue,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Malacañang expressed condolences to the families of the soldiers slain in the latest encounter.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Armed Forces is working on finding the other missing soldiers.

"We extend our condolences to the family of the soldiers killed in the clash. We are saddened by this incident," Valte said.

Asked if the clash would have an effect in the peace talks, the Palace official refused to comment, deferring the matter to the government peace panel.

"Peace process is sensitive. We don't want to comment and whenever there are incidents like this, it will be taken up with the counterparts in the peace panel," she said.

Valte assured the relatives of the soldiers killed in Basilan that there will be no whitewash in the investigation.

There is no particular instruction from President Aquino regarding the clash, said Valte, adding that she is not aware whether Aquino will go to Basilan to personally deal with the issue.

Aside from 19 slain soldiers, four are still missing. Eleven soldiers were wounded.

Valte said Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Oban has asked military officials to go to Basilan to “ascertain the facts”.

Isolated case

In a separate statement, government peace panel chairman Marvic Leonen, said the incident was an isolated case and the government is already attending to the civilians affected by the clash.

"We are also informed that the incident has caused some casualties. Some civilians have also been evacuated as a result of the incident. They are already being attended to by the relevant government units. The fighting has already stopped. We are certain that this is an isolated incident," he said.

He added the armed confrontation was "not intended by both government and MILF."

"We are confident that the current mechanisms for monitoring violations of the ceasefire agreement are in place and are effectively working. With the assistance of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as well as the ceasefire committees, we hope to be able to get a clearer picture of the causes of this incident," he said.

The government panel is preparing for a meeting with its counterparts next month, Leonen said.

Meanwhile, Philippine Army chief Lieutenant General Arturo Ortiz arrived in Zamboanga City Wednesday to check the situation on the ground.

Ortiz, upon his arrival Wednesday morning, met with Wesmincom chief Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer and other Wesmincom officials, and discussed matters concerning the prevailing situation in Basilan province.

After the meeting, Ortiz, Ferrer and other military officials travelled to Basilan province and proceeded to Camp Luis Biel II, which houses the headquarters of the Special Operations Task Force-Basilan.

After the visit, Ortiz will return to Zamboanga City to visit the wounded soldiers receiving treatment at Camp Navarro General Hospital, as well as to attend to the remains of the slain soldiers, Cabangbang said. (With Jill Beltran/Sunnex)

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