Southcom split starts August; more troops expected

Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr, told reporters Friday that the two new commands will be known as the Eastern Mindanao Command and the Western Mindanao Command.

If approved by President Arroyo, Esperon said this would mean more troops in Mindanao, with the Eastern Mindanao Command focusing on the war against the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the Western Mindanao Command on Abu Sayyaf and "other terrorist groups.”

Ms Arroyo, in her speech at the assumption of Esperon as chief of staff on July 21, said, “we will divide the Southern Command into two unified commands for more effective troop management and control.”

The Eastern Mindanao command, which Esperon said will be based in the Davao region will cover Northern Mindanao, Southeastern Mindanao, Southwestern Mindanao , and the Caraga region. The Western Mindanao Command, which will likely use the existing Southcom headquarters in Zamboanga City, will cover Western Mindanao including the Zamboanga and Lanao provinces and the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi–tawi, and Basilan.

Esperon said troops will be redeployed to Mindanao, with additional troops for the eastern command. A new division, the 10th Infantry Division, was activated here on August 16, for “better command and control of all forces in the area.”

Esperon said it will focus on the NPA and its front organizations.

The split of the Southcom into two "unified commands" was recommended by General Generoso Senga, Esperon's predecessor, "for more effective troop management and control.”

The military has noted that Southcom's area of responsibility was characterized by the "strong presence of secessionist movement," "terrorist elements" and "communist rebels.”

Esperon earlier said the splitting of the Southcom and activation of a  new division in eastern Mindanao is part of their strategy to defeat the NPA before Arroyo's term ends in 2010.

The military described the move as destroying the armed capability of the NPA, removing their logistics bases and dismantling  their support network.

He said it means more men in the frontline and in urban areas to combat "lawless elements" and “terrorists.”

On August 10, Esperon told a 15-person delegation from the Mindanao PeaceWeavers, a network of nine peace networks in Mindanao, that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), were no longer considered as threats to peace.

Esperon said "the MNLF and MILF could disturb the peace and we are ready for that but I think we have learned the mechanisms that could achieve peace for us".
But Esperon said the NPA tops the list of "threats to peace" followed by "Jemaah Islamiyah-Abu Sayyaf" and "lawlessness."

The AFP has six unified area commands, including Northern Luzon, Southern Luzon, Central, Western, National Capital Region (NCR), and the Southcom, which, undivided, is home to at least 60 percent of the total strength of the AFP's 120,000 personnel.

The 10th infantry division will be the fourth army division in  Mindanao aside from the 1st, 4th and 6th infantry divisions in  Zamboanga, Cotabato and Cagayan de Oro.

The AFP now has 10 Army divisions — four in Luzon, two in the Visayas and four in Mindanao. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)