Gov’t panel asks for 24-hour extension of Basilan joint probe deadline; MILF agrees

Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, chief of the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) CCCH, said he had asked chief government negotiator Rodolfo Garcia for a 24-hour extension to give the joint fact-finding team composed of government, rebel and civilian investigators more time to finish the investigation.

“Hindi kaya talaga (It is not really possible). We have been burning the candles but there are more witnesses to be interviewed yet,” he said.

President Arroyo had postponed military actions against the Marine killers pending the result of the investigation made by the GRP-MILF CCCH and the Bantay Ceasefire.

In Manila, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said  punitive actions will be launched in Basilan against those who beheaded the Philippine Marines as soon as the deadline expires on Tuesday midnight.

But Gurrea said the reported military action will not happen since Esperon had assured him that the Armed Forces will not launch punitive strikes until the joint fact-finding team ends the investigation.

"We are 65 to 70 percent done but we have limitations too," he said.

After spending three days in Basilan island, the joint fact-finding team returned to Zamboanga City Sunday afternoon to interview more witnesses.

Gurrea said they have finished interviewing 20 witnesses out of the 23 Marine officers, MILF ground commanders and civilians who have direct knowledge on what transpired in Al-Barkah, Basilan on July 10. Fourteen Marine troopers were killed, ten of them beheaded. Nine others were injured. An imam was also killed. On the side of the MILF, five were killed, six others were injured.

Von Al Haq, chair of the MILF CCCH, told MindaNews they would also seek extension of the deadline “if we can’t finish tomorrow.”

He said they need ample time to “so that results and findings are credible and impartial and not a result of pressure and time constraint.” 

A source close to the investigation team said they are waiting for two vital witnesses who could shed light on the identities of the suspects who beheaded the Marines.

Also expected to give his testimony is GMA reporter Jun Veneracion who filmed the gunbattle between the Marines and the MILF rebels in Barangay Guinanta.

Gurrea said the proceedings have been slow because the witnesses come in trickles.

"Many witnesses are scared to come forward. It is understandable because of the situation," Gurrea said.

He said they are offering witnesses some protection from reprisal under the Department of Justice Witness Protection Program.

The task of the joint fact-finding team is to look into whether the Philippine Marines committed violations of the ceasefire agreement; identify who did the beheadings of the Marines and the killing of Imam Al-Kanul, a 69-year-old religious leader; and come up with measures to prevent any repetition of such incident in the future.

The European Commission in the Philippines said the creation of the team was "a positive response" by the government and urged Armed Forces not to launch military action in Basilan.

Japan, Canada, Malaysia, and the World Bank have expressed fears that an offensive in Basilan will lead to a renewed fighting in mainland Mindanao.  (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)

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