Esperon sent 100 troops who are veterans to peacekeeping duties, to barangay Kuloy, Shariff Aguak town to replace Bravo Company of the 64th Infantry Battalion.
The relieved company was subject to several complaints from the International Monitoring Team and Bantay Ceasefire volunteers for being “too confrontational” with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Barangay Kuloy.
“Let’s give them a try. These peacekeepers are veteran in settling ridos in Upi, Maguindanao,” said Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, head of the government Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH).
Esperon’s move was immediately welcomed by the MILF and Bantay Ceasefire.
“It is a wise move of the AFP Chief of Staff. It is a strong signal to the ground troops that he (Esperon) is adhering to the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF,” Pikit Parish priest and Bantay Ceasefire volunteer Roberto Layson said.
“We appreciate this very much because it shows the government is listening to our complaints,” MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu said.
Gurrea said Bravo Company was brought out of Barangay Kuloy aboard Army six-by-six trucks Wednesday afternoon. Their replacement, 100 troops from the 6th Infantry Battalion (6IB), quickly moved to fill the vacuum.
The entire episode lasted through the day and was witnessed by the International Monitoring Team, GRP-MILF CCCH, and Bantay Ceasefire volunteers.
Gurrea said the peacekeepers also set up a Joint Monitoring Action Center (JMAC), an outpost manned by international peacekeepers, GRP-MILF representatives and Bantay Ceasefire volunteers, near the camp of the newly-arrived soldiers from the 6IB.
He said JMAC will support 6IB soldiers in maintaining the shaky truce between armed militiamen and MILF rebels along a five-kilometer buffer zone.
Gurrea said representatives from the IMT, Philippine government, MILF and Bantay Ceasefire also spent the entire day today setting up markers along the buffer zone, a task not implemented back in July when it was set up to separate the armed militia and elements of the MILF 105th Brigade.
“We found there were no landmarks along the buffer zone. It was simply a road net. The absence of landmarks created confusion,” he told Mindanews by phone.
Armed clashes between militiamen supported by Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Rizaldy Ampatuan and MILF rebels have been an “irritant” to the ongoing peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro rebels.
A total of six clashes were reported since the buffer zone was set up in July. The clashes resulted to the death of at least six soldiers and undetermined number of rebels; and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.
The MILF had accused Bravo Company of siding with militiamen in many of these clashes.
“The soldiers even lend their mortars to the militiamen to shell our positions. When we pursue them, the militiamen will run to the soldiers for help,” Kabalu said.
He said the deployment of Bravo Company in Barangay Kuloy was not approved by the GRP-MILF CCCH panels when it set up the buffer zone in July.
The 6th Infantry Division has denied all of these allegations but the IMT have brought the matter to the attention to the AFP leadership.
Layson said the removal of Bravo Company and setting up of landmarks along the buffer zone will help stabilize the situation in Shariff Aguak.
“Their presence in Barangay Kuloy was already unhealthy. They (Bravo Company) were already perceived as biased against the MILF,” Layson said.
He said Bravo Company could have set an example if it has kept its mandate to separate the warring militiamen and MILF in Shariff Aguak.