IMT: conditions conducive to signing peace agreement

This was the assessment of Maj. Gen. Datuk Mat Yassin bin Mat Daud, head of the Malaysia-led International Monitoring Team (IMT), in an interview after a briefing in 102 Infantry Brigade based here on the peace situation in the province.

The IMT — composed of Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Japan — oversee the ceasefire between the government and MILF.

"Ground conditions are very conducive to the resumption of the peace talks as we effectively reduced the number of hostilities in Mindanao," Yassin bin Mat Daud said.

The IMT head claimed that since the monitoring team arrived, fighting between government and rebel forces has drastically decreased. The IMT has recorded 698 armed clashes in 2002, reduced to 559 in 2003, significantly dropping to 15 in 2004 upon the intervention of the IMT, then 10 clashes in 2005. The figure rose to 13 clashes in 2006, but then dropped to 7 in 2007.

In Zamboanga City, Von Al Haq, the chair of the MILF Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), assured that the peace process is still on track, in light of speculations of certain groups trying to sabotage the development of the peace process.

"We are working hard, regardless of those bad elements on the ground, with the condition that we have close coordination with our counterparts," stressed Al Haq.

The IMT noted that the clash between the police and MILF in Lakiki, Sibuco, Zamboanga del Norte was the first recorded conflict for 2008. One civilian was killed while four others, including the town's police chief, were injured in the clash. The lone fatality was identified as 58-year-old Hadja Noraida Langgal.

The local police and Bantay Ceasefire (Ceasefire Watch), a grassroots peace monitor, presented different versions of the incident which triggered the evacuation of close to 300 families.

Initial media reports echoed claims by the police that some Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters initiated the attack.

But a Bantay Ceasefire team sent to Lakiki said it appeared that it was the police who attacked the MILF.

"Based on the accounts of the people in the community and ocular inspection in the site of the encounter, it can be said that it was the police who attacked the Moro rebels first," Pastor Rey Montecillo, a member of the grassroots peace monitor, said.

The group also noted the presence of evacuees who were left to fend for themselves. It said 165 families from Lakiki and 100 others from nearby barangay Kabunan left their homes.

Witnesses who are mostly of barangay officials alleged it was the police, who were positioned on high ground, who fired at the MILF fighters numbering about 40.

The firefight lasted from 8 a.m. until 12 noon, not 30 minutes as reported earlier.

Al Haq said a joint investigation will conducted to determine the "real cause of the incident".

"We will conduct a probe into that incident as we have to deescalate the conflict to normalize the situation," he said.

Yassin bin Mat Daud stressed that "if both the government forces and the MILF will only observe close coordination, the eruption of conflict will be prevented," apparently referring to the Lakiki clash.

Al Haq seconded that "communication at all levels is very important," adding that the MILF "believe that the most practical and civilized way of resolving conflict is through negotiation, talking with your adversary."

Both Yassin bin Mat Daud and Al Haq were part of the Joint GRP-MILF CCCH and IMT 4 Familiarization Tour, which started Feb. 1 from Cotabato City and will end Feb. 9 in Zamboanga City. They will visit Basilan tomorrow (Feb. 7).

The government was represented by Gen. Rey Sealana who heads the government CCCH. (With reports from Angel Tiamson-Saceda)

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