OPAPP: Gov't did not buy returned SAF arms

MANILA, Philippines – The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process has denied allegations that the government paid for the returned weapons seized from elite cops slain in the January 25 clash with rebel forces in Mamasapano town.

In a statement on Saturday, February 21, OPAPP Executive Director Luisito Montalbo also expressed disappointment over the allegations made by Fr Eliseo Mercado, which he deemed as "unsubstantiated and unverified."

"We don't know where that is coming from. Certainly, there is no truth to that," Montalbo said. 

He added, "We find it very disappointing that Fr Jun, whom we've known for a long time and who used to directly engage our office as a peace advocate, would come out publicly‎ with claims that are unsubstantiated and unverified."

Mercado had alleged that the government, through OPAPP, purchased the arms from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and made it appear that the rebel group had voluntarily returned the SAF weapons to the government.

The MILF had earlier committed to return the weapons and personal items obtained by its members from SAF troopers in Mamasapano to show its commitment to the peace process, as demanded by government officials led by President Benigno Aquino III.

'We're just a text away'

Montalbo said OPAPP's disappointment stems from the fact that Mercado is no stranger to the agency, and is just a "text or call away" if he needed to verify any information with its officials.

"It saddens us to note that Fr Jun would feel that he could no longer directly ‎engage our Office constructively as many other local and national civil society peace advocates, religious leaders, and other stakeholders are currently doing," he said.

The OPAPP official added, "He knows we are just a text or call away should he wish to check with us the truth behind some information or rumors he receives." 

"‎His public pronouncement is wrong and also unfair to our ground forces, the ceasefire committees, and our international monitors who personally documented, facilitated and officially witnessed the retrieval of the weapons from the MILF," Montalbo said.

He was referring to the GPH-MILF Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, and the International Monitoring Team (IMT), mechanisms under the ceasefire agreement between the government and MILF that were instrumental in the retrieval of the SAF weapons. 

On February 18, the MILF peace panel led by Mohogher Iqbal presented to his government counterpart, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, 16 and high powered SAF weapons. A day later, the weapons were formally turned over to the Philippine National Police.

‎Legal steps vs 'malicious misinformation'

Montalbo said OPAPP's legal unit is looking into what the OPAPP press statement called "various malicious misinformations being directed at the agency, which now include Mercado's claim."

"Definitely, we cannot allow such untruths and violations of our rights to go unchallenged. It is not just the name of the agency that is at stake, but hundreds of its employees who have no way to protect themselves from being maligned in this way," he said.

On Saturday, the Institute for Autonomy on Governance (IAG), which Mercado serves as part of a pool of advisors and consultants, said that the priest's statement on the SAF arms does not reflect the official position of the organization.

"The views expressed by our advisors and consultants do not necessarily reflect the official position of IAG," lawyer Benedicto Bacani, IAG founding executive director, said in a statement posted on the IAG's Facebook page.

Bacani added: "Aside from IAG, he (Mercado) is part of many organizations and networks. His public statements are of his own accord and responsibility."

In Malacañang, Deputy President Spokesperson Abigail Valte said Mercado's allegation only "muddles" the confidence-building gesture made the MILF.

"It’s a manifestation of their continued interest to be our partners in the peace process….Let’s be very careful about the information that we believe," Valte said.

Malacañang and Philippine security officials have deemed the MILF move as  a good first step towards fixing a relationship strained by an encounter that killed at least 65 people, including 44 elite cops, and put a long-awaited peace deal in danger– Rappler.com