Gov’t, MILF in backchannel talks to return SAF arms

Angela Casauay
Gov’t, MILF in backchannel talks to return SAF arms
(UPDATED) It might not happen in an instant as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is still in the process of tracking down weapons, the chief government negotiator says

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – In a bid to save the peace process, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are engaged in backchannel talks for rebel forces to return the weapons of elite cops killed in the clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

“There are a lot of different lines going out so that we can solve this problem with the accountabilities addressed,” chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told Rappler.

Returning the firearms, as well as the uniforms, cellphones, and other personal effects of the 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP SAF) who were killed in the January 25 clash is the first gesture that President Benigno Aquino III wants to see from the MILF to show its commitment to the peace process.

The other “concrete action” that the President wants is for the MILF to step aside during security operations for high-profile criminals and terrorists. 

The MILF is under intense pressure to prove its sincerity after the deadly clash, which occurred in a town known as an MILF bailiwick.

Nearly 400 PNP-SAF members entered Mamasapano on January 25 with a mission to serve the warrants of arrest to wanted terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan,” and Abdul Basit Usman.

The troopers, who managed to hit Marwan, were reportedly surrounded by combined forces of the MILF and breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on their way out.

Brigadier General Carlito Galvez Jr, chair of the government ceasefire committee, said he has laid down the President’s “reasonable expectations” to his counterpart in the MILF in the presence of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) overseeing the ceasefire agreement.

Galvez said his counterpart in the MILF, Rashid Lucman, told him, that the MILF is “considering everything.”

The MILF is conducting its own probe into the Mamasapano clash. Separate investigations are also being conducted by the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Army, the Commission on Human Rights, the Department of Justice, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

Mohager Iqbal, head of the MILF peace panel, said the group has not made any decision yet on whether or not to return the weapons they got from the SAF troops but that the issue will most likely be tackled on Thursday, February 5, when they meet.

On whether the MILF would wait for their own investigation to end before deciding on the status of the SAF weapons, Iqbal said: “Mauuna [ang decision] kung sakali.” (The decision will come ahead of the investigation results.)

MILF still tracking weapons

Close to two weeks after the Mamasapano clash, Ferrer said the MILF is still in the process of rounding up all the weapons that were captured.

“It’s not impossible, that sign of sincerity. The problem here is they are still tracking (the firearms). So, we have to give them some time,” Ferrer said.

PNP OIC Director General Leonardo Espina has accused MILF members of selling SAF weapons. Other firearms might have been captured by the BIFF as well, according to reports.

In a news conference in Camp Crame on Wednesday, February 4, Espina also scored the MILF for the “overkill” of its forces in the Mamasapano clash – even if proven true that there was no prior coordination with the rebel group – since the rebel group was engaged in peace talks with the government.

Espina said that after the rebels killed the troopers, they shot them in the face and did not only take their cellphones but even allegedly called the fallen officers’ wives to tell them not to bother calling since their husbands were dead.

“We [in the PNP] are fully all out for peace. There are peace talks. We behave according to the protocol of the discussion. We expect the other party to behave. You took 44 lives; we have a peace process. Remember that. But we will always abide by the peace talks,” the PNP OIC said.

If it were up to the panels, it would be easier to fix the situation behind the scenes. 

“My personal opinion is the less demands made publicly, the better. It’s better not to talk about it. For incidents like this, it’s really more effective to do things quietly. But we know the public has expectations,” said government peace panel member Senen Bacani.

Precedents

How do backchannels work?

Back in 1998, the MILF was able to capture a 90mm recoilless rifle and an M16 rifle from the military in a clash that killed two and wounded 35, Galvez said.

Galvez negotiated for the return of the weapons a year after the incident – but the process was not that simple.

“What we did, we made it appear that they did not return it. We sold it to a politician. We paid the politician but we also retrieved the firearms from the same politician secretly. That’s the backchannel. They can’t give it to us directly,” Galvez said.

A more recent incident happened in 2014. It only took a week to recover firearms since there were no casualties from both sides, Ferrer said.

“In the course of a series of events, the guns ended up in their (MILF) possession and we know that 6 firearms of the police were returned as a result of the negotiations facilitated by the ceasefire committee and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group,” said Ferrer, who refused to give specific details of the encounter.

BEHIND THE SCENES. The government wants the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to return the firearms of elite cops killed in the clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015. File photo by Karlos Manlupig/Rappler

What is the point of backchannel negotiations?

This is to avoid embarrassment on both sides, Ferrer said. It is no small deal on the side of the military to admit that their arms were captured while surrendering firearms is a sensitive issue for Moro rebels.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal himself has admitted that turning over firearms is almost a taboo topic among the MILF.

Under the peace accord signed in March 2014, the MILF agreed to decommission their firearms in exchange for the creation of a new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao with greater political and fiscal powers than the current one.

What about Usman?

One of the conditions that Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr had set before resuming hearings on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is for the MILF to help in the hunt for Usman.

The MILF, for its part, has maintained that it is not in a position to turn over the wanted terrorist. (MILF: We didn’t coddle Marwan, Usman)

The government knows that the intricacies of the situation in Mamasapano – where BIFF and MILF members related to each other reside in the same community – would make it difficult for the MILF to surrender Usman themselves or facilitate his capture. (EXCLUSIVE: Marwan’s ties that bind: Ren-ren Dongon)

“Basit Usman lives in that area. He has a big family. If you do something bad to Basit Usman, every member of the family will gang up on you and it will become a big rido (clan war).” Galvez said.

Ferrer said MILF members and their relatives would need to protect themselves from  Usman’s supporters unless a comprehensive witness protection program is rolled out in the area. 

Government representatives and the MILF are conducting a joint security assessment to craft a plan on how to pursue Usman and other criminal elements in MILF areas.  Rappler.com

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