62 private armies in Mindanao identified

PHILIPPINES NEWS SERVICE — At least 62 private armies operating in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao have been identified, a Basilan police official said.

These partisan armed groups are either policemen or soldiers assigned as security escorts of government officials, the police official said on condition of anonymity.

In Basilan province alone, there are at least five local officials who maintain armed groups.

The police official explained that the private armed groups are classified into four categories. They are: 1. lawless elements; 2. combination of lawless elements and persons without criminal records; 3. private individuals with no known criminal records; and 4. government personnel, such as police and military personnel and other law enforcement agencies.

He said the Commission on Elections has advised the partisan armed groups to wear their prescribed uniform whenever they are on duty. In this manner, he said, they will be properly identified as legitimate security escorts.

But they are still required to secure gun ban exemptions from Comelec if they wish to carry firearms, he said. The military and police personnel are prohibited to carry firearms when they are not on duty unless an exemption is issued by the Comelec.

Several areas in the ARMM have been classified as “areas of immediate concern” by the Comelec. The initial list includes Sulu and Basilan.

Earlier, Rep. Gerry Sallapudin voiced his apprehension over the proliferation of loose firearms and the presence of private armies in Basilan.

The ARMM Comelec officials responded by saying that concrete evidence should be brought forward so that the Comelec can properly act on them.

The police official said the proliferation of loose firearms in Basilan can be attributed to the presence of threat groups, like the Abu Sayyaf Group, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and breakaway groups of the Moro National Liberation Front.

He said the Comelec, in consultation with the police and the military, has identified the areas of immediate concern as those areas which are known to be lairs of the Abu Sayyaf or areas with previous incidents of election-related violence.

The police official said in the past elections in Basilan, there was no reported incident of violence related to the polls but admitted there were reports of grave threats and alleged election cheating.

National Police deputy director for operations Wilfredo Garcia recently said they have already seized at least 300 firearms throughout the country in its enforcement of the gun ban.