Gov’t orders MILF to leave occupied towns

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE government yesterday ordered the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to leave villages it forcibly occupied in North Cotabato. Officials gave the group until 10 a.m. today to move out of five towns or face “full military might.”

Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo V. Puno said at least five towns occupied by Christian settlers have been affected by the MILF invasion. He said around 1,536 families or 6,547 people have been displaced by the armed guerrillas and are now taking refuge in evacuation centers.

Some of the villages forcibly occupied by the MILF are Barangays Bago-Libas, Dualing, Pagangan, Cabpangi, Gumaga, Central Labas, Upper Labas, Rangaban, and Baliki.

Reports said Muslim guerillas burned and looted several houses, forcing villagers to flee.

“We can’t let this continue. After the deadline, our troops will move. We’re telling them to vacate right now,” Puno said.

He ordered Philippine National Police chief Director General Avelino I. Razon, Jr. to send three battalions of policemen to the area to restore peace and order.

Defense Secretary Gilbert C. Teodoro said the military will also send a battalion of soldiers to reinforce the police.

Puno said the order to move out of the occupied towns is not a declaration of war against the MILF. “This is just a declaration of an open enforcement of the rule of law.”

Teodoro said the order will also serve as a test for the MILF.

“This will show how they exercise good faith and responsibility as an organization,” he said, noting that the government wants “to return those dispossessed of their lands to their homes and return to their normal lives.”

Puno said the rebels who occupied several barangays in Midsayap and Northern Kabuntalan came from the MILF’s 105th Base Command under Commander Umbra Kato, described in military and police intelligence reports as an aggressive anti-peace talks leader known for allegedly coddling members of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf in his territory.

Since July 1, Puno said they have been getting reports that the guerrillas have been burning houses and plantations, looting properties and engaging in cattle-rustling in different parts of the province.

Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. confirmed that MILF rebels have illegally occupied several areas in North Cotabato.

“We’re announcing this action to put back the residents since this is harvest time. We will employ the existing ceasefire mechanism by which we can ask the MILF to vacate the place and the Joint Ceasefire Committee had been advised to contact the other side,” he said.