Sulu crisis over; date set for prep tripartite meet

“We’re okay,” Santos told MindaNews in a telephone interview from Zamboanga City Sunday night while having dinner with Dolorfino and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza.

“I knew they were not going to harm us. They just used us as leverage to pressure the parties (into setting a date for the tripartite meeting),” Dolorfino, a Muslim, told MindaNews by phone.

The MNLF’s Ustadz Habier Malik had asked Santos and company to remain in camp until a date was set for the long-delayed tripartite meeting among the Philippine government, MNLF and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) which brokered the talks. The tripartite meeting is intended to review the implementation of the 10-year old peace pact.

Dureza told MindaNews he sent a letter to Malik before sundown Saturday while the faxed letter of Ambassador Sayed El-Masry, adviser to the Secretary-General of the OIC and head of delegation of the OIC Field Visit to Southern Philippines in May last year, was sent to Malik Sunday morning, both of them certifying the holding of a Preparatory Tripartite Meeting on March 17 and 18.

Dureza told MindaNews that the scheduled preparatory tripartite meeting was agreed upon by the Philippine government and the OIC “three weeks ago.” Why the MNLF did not know about this supposed schedule was not explained. Last week, MNLF legal counsel Randolph Parcasio told MindaNews there was no word as yet about the cancellation of the supposed February 6 to 8 tripartite meting.

Dureza said they also requested the OIC to convene the Tripartite Meeting after the May elections.

El Masry’s delegation last May 2006, sent over to look into the implementation of the then nearly 10-year old peace agreement,  proposed a tripartite meeting in Jeddah sometime in July with MNLF chair Nur Misuari to “work out an implementation program” to carry out the provisions that have not been implemented “or have been changed in a way.”

Misuari has been in detention for alleged rebellion, since January 2002 in the Philippines. Between November 2001 and the first week of January 2002, he was detained in  Sabah, Malaysia for alleged illegal entry.

The OIC had repeatedly called for his release.

“The parties must sit together,” El-Masry said.

“For peace to really be permanent, it has to be just. One of the parties thinks the agreement has not been implemented. The purpose of proposing a meeting in Jeddah is for this, (for the parties) to sit together with open hearts and minds and only after that can we reach an assessment of the situation,” El-Masry said, adding that until now, there is “wide gap” between the reports of the parties on the implementation of the peace pact. “We are trying to narrow the gap.”

On Saturday afternoon, at around 1 p.m., Santos told MindaNews on the phone from Bitan-ag that they were “not hostages.”

“We are not being handcuffed. We can still use our cell phones. Our security personnel are still armed,” Santos, a retired Army general, said.

Santos said they arrived at Malik’s camp at 3 p.m. on Friday for some turnover rites and a discussion of a social development package for them and were supposed to leave at 4:30 p.m. when Malik asked about the tripartite meeting among the Philippine government, MNLF and the OIC which was originally intended for July 2006, reset to September then
December and on February 6 to 8 and reset again for a still unspecified date.

“I would like to correct the impression that we were kidnapped, that (MNLF chair Nur) Misuari is just the issue here. For them, the issue here is to set the date for the tripartite meeting that will not be postponed and will preferably be held if possible this month, preferably next week so we can go home,” Santos said.

Santos, Undersecretary for Security Concerns and former chair of the government peace panel’s ceasefire committee in the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said he and Dolorfino volunteered to be left behind to allow the 23 others to leave but their offer was not accepted.

Dolorfino, a Muslim, is presently chief of the National Capital Regional Command, chair of the government peace panel’s Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) in the negotiations with MILF, and pointperson for Sulu’s Roadmap to Peace and Development.

The Preparatory Meeting in Jeddah has been scheduled for March 17 to 18. The MNLF reckons the founding date of the MNLF to March 18, 1968 in honor of the victims of the Jabidah Massacre. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)