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MANILA, Philippines – The seaside town of Al-Barka in the island-province of Basilan seems to be any other sleepy far-flung community in the rural Philippine south.
It is a sixth-class municipality that only had a population of a little over 26,000 people as of 2007.
Looks can always be deceiving, however, as much blood has been spilled in the town.
On July 10, 2007, 23 Marines were killed in the area, with 14 of them beheaded.
On Tuesday, at least 19 more government troops belonging to an Army Special Forces battalion were slain in the town by many of the same men who were allegedly behind the 2007 killings.
A study on the 2007 incident and initial reports on the clash on Tuesday show similarities that both the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) may want to look at.
A single name also surfaces in the 2 incidents -- Dan Laksaw (Ustaz) Asnawi, whom the MILF has identified as the head of the 114th Base Command of its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces in Basilan.
He was tagged in the beheading of Marines in same town in 2007. He was later arrested, but escaped from the provincial jail in 2009.
On Tuesday, in a Special Forces operation aimed at the capture of Asnawi and 9 other men, he managed not only to escape again but inflict heavy casualties on government forces.
The July 2007 incident
The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent and non-profit think-tank committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts worldwide, described the cause of the killings in 2007 as a lack of coordination between the military and the MILF in the rescue of kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi.
The ICG said MILF forces helping in the search for Bossi had already stood down before the incident, expressing concern that a mistaken encounter might occur in the absence of a clear Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) mandate, which had expired on June 21.
The AHJAG is a joint effort of the Philippine government and the MILF that seeks to interdict and isolate lawless elements that take refuge in or near MILF communities.
Add to the potent mix the case of Basilan province, where the military can't simply throw its weight around.
An ICG report said Basilan's unique volatility arises from the fact that the small island is home to 3 heavily-armed groups -- the MILF and its predecessor the Moro National Liberation Front, as well as all as the terrorist bandit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
"Clans are often involved in all three networks, as well as local electoral politics, where access to high-powered firearms is at a premium," the report added.
Marines troops set out on patrol on the morning of July 10, 2007, after receiving a tip that Fr. Bossi had been seen in Al-Barka municipality.
"Two days earlier, Basilan marine commander Col. Ramiro Alivio told Crisis Group that unusually large formations of armed men – several hundred strong – had been making their presence felt in the area for some months. Rather than attempting to distinguish their component members, which could have involved a complicated 'paper trail' with the ceasefire committee, Alivio chose to regard them as undifferentiated lawless elements," the ICG said.
The Marines' patrol turned up nothing and their luck turned for the worse when one of their trucks bogged down in the mud. The soldiers then alighted from their vehicles and fanned out to secure the perimeter.
"The site – in Guinanta village – is the location of two of the MILF's three brigade commands in Basilan. Unknown to the Marines, MILF forces were closely observing their movements. As the Marines came within meters of the guerrillas’ high ground, gunfire erupted," the ICG said.
An official of the joint government and MILF Coordinating Committees on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) said the gunbattle became a one-sided "pintakasi" for locals, who all went after the Marines.
"Once combat began, armed men from surrounding neighborhoods, including ASG fighters, joined against the Marines in the hope of sharing in the spoils – captured equipment, arms or ammunition – or of avenging past wrongs," the ICG said. "Followers of local politicians were embittered by the Marines' rigid enforcement of the previous May's election gun ban."
Twenty-three government troops were killed in the incident, which according to the ICG, "demonstrated the power of a momentary tactical alliance across organizational boundaries."
The October 2011 incident
On October 18, Special Forces soldiers were involved in an operation in Sitio Bakisong, Cambug Village, Al-Barka town against a small group of men led by Asnawi and Abu Sayyaf members Nursahan Jamiri and Long Malat, according to Col. Carlito Galvez, Army chief operations divisions at the office of the deputy chief of staff.
Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, AFP Western Mindanao Command spokesman, also said government troops "were operating based on the information of the presence of an armed group, possibly (holding) kidnap victims."
It was not clear who fired the first shots but like in the 2007 incident, government troops suddenly found themselves outnumbered as MILF reinforcements came.
"Initially, the encountered lawless were about 10 but eventually reinforcement came from the north and it swelled to more or less 400," Galvez said.
"Nagsimula siya ng 7 ng umaga to 4 p.m.," Cabangbang told ANC. "It gave opportunity to other armed groups to join not because they have something against soldiers but they want to help relatives and recover firearms."
"Kung mga may baril sasali. Basta may firefight may sasali," he said, adding that even women may have joined the battle. "Ang daming baril diyan ng mga babae, they joined ‘yung mga enkwentro na ganyan."
|A soldier carries the body of his comrade wounded in the Basilan clash Tuesday.
The military said the October 2011 incident happened 4 kilometers away from any known MILF territory.
The MILF, meanwhile, said otherwise. "The fighting started when government soldiers deliberately attacked an MILF area, without provocation at all," according to the rebel group's website
The MILF, which lost at least 5 fighters in the encounter, also blamed the military for the violence.
"Dapat may coordination dahil may mechanism na tinatag ang MILF-GPH para sa ceasefire-related issues like this pero hindi nga nangyari," Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice-chair for political affairs, told ANC Wednesday.
The MILF's spokesman, Von Al Haq, echoed Jaafar's claim.
"They attacked our forces in the area without proper coordination and allegedly they were running after criminals. If that's true that they were running after criminals, they short cut the process," he told media.
"We have a process that is holding until now, through the AHJAG and CCCH. They are they supposed to coordinate with their counterparts especially through MILF ceasefire committee, they did not do this," Al Haq added.
The incident and the circumstances that let to it drew close parallel to July 2007 killings.
|A soldier carries his comrade wounded in the Basilan clash Tuesday.
They also occurred at times when the peace talks between the government and the MILF are facing an impasse.
President Benigno Aquino III will lead a command conference on Friday at the AFP Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo to discuss the Basilan incident.
Aquino, military officials, and ground commanders should take heed of the ICG's earlier recommendations to prevent any future repeat of the 2007 and 2011 clashes.
The ICG said the AHJAG remains "a policy tool of proven value."
It was designed to facilitate coordination between the Philippines government and the MILF to share intelligence on terrorists and avoid accidental clashes while government forces pursued them," the think-tank said. "The problem is that it will only work if there is progress on the political front – that is, in peace negotiations – so that insurgents see concrete benefits from their cooperation with the government."
"Mass-based insurgencies like the MILF and MNLF rely on supportive populations. By extension, small numbers of terrorists rely on sympathetic insurgents. Counter-terrorism's central task in a setting like that in the Philippines is to isolate jihadis from their insurgent hosts – not divide insurgents from the population," the ICG said, citing the use of the AHJAG to prevent the escalation of conflict as the military went after terrorists in MILF strongholds in western Mindanao.
"It helped force the ASG's core group, including Kadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman, to Sulu, where they were killed," the think-tank revealed.
With enough motivation, the MILF may also be encouraged to hunt down by themselves any high-value terrorist hiding in the rebel group's territory, as revealed by a secret US embassy cable
published by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
With regard to renegade MILF members who have committed crimes that the military wants to hunt down, the ICG said government must encourage the rebel group to fully clarify its membership by providing a list of expelled members "to prevent post-facto alibis."