Questions needing answers in Basilan

This is one of the questions being raised by an independent monitor, Bantay Ceasefire, which has made initial findings of the July 10 incident in Basilan that left 14 Marines dead and several others wounded.

Rexall Kaalim, Bantay Ceasefire coordinator said they found several questions unanswered during their five-day monitoring in Basilan last week. He said the team will return to the island province to find answers.

Kaalim said that according to interviews with the Marine officers involved in the fighting, Imam Al-Kanul, 69, a Moro religious leader, was seen waving his hands at the Marines as gunfire erupted.

He said at least one Marine officer told him they thought the Imam was giving orders to their attackers.

Kaalim said the Marine officer, however, denied shooting or giving orders to kill the religious leader.

"Apparently, the old man was trying to wave his hands in a friendly greeting at the Marines when the shooting started," Kaalim said.

He said there were reports that the Marines arrested the Imam and took him as they searched for the then kidnap victim, Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi (freed evening of July 19 in Lanao del Norte). The reports were not true, Kaalim said, adding the Imam lived beside a mosque only a few meters from where the gunbattle erupted.

Kaalim said they are disturbed by the insistence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front not to surrender those behind the clash.

"The MILF could not feign ignorance. Their ground commander should know who did the beheading. He is a native from the place and knows the community well," Kaalim said.

Marine troopers, returning after a fruitless search for the kidnapped Italian priest morning of July 10, met a sizable force of MILF guerrillas in Barangay Guinanta, Al-Barka town (carved out of Tipo-tipo). The resulting gunbattle left 14 Marines dead and five rebels killed.

The MILF reportedly burned several trucks and seized a number of firearms including Belgian-made Squad Automatic Weapons (SAW); M14 equipped with sniper scopes and night vision goggles from the fallen Marines.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines called it "an ambush" but the MILF insisted it was an "encounter" and accused the Marines of violating the ceasefire agreement by intruding into their territory without prior coordination on July 8, 9 and 10.

On July 11, the bodies of 14 Marines and Imam Al-Kanul, a religious leader, were found. Al-Kanul's relatives said the Imam's body showed signs of torture and that its throat was slashed.

Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief negotiator, said knowing who killed Al-Kanul is of "paramount importance" to the MILF.

"The death of an Imam is important to us Muslims, " he said.

Kaalim said many questions are still unanswered but what is certain is that they were able to establish that the Marines violated the ceasefire agreement when they entered the MILF area without coordinating with the GRP-MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).

Kaalim said by using a shorter route in going home to their base in Lamitan town, the Marines inadvertently entered deeper into “MILF territory” where there were three groups of rebels guarding the road.

He said news reports that provincial and local officials had warned the Marines from entering the MILF were correct.

"Why did the Marines ignore the warnings?" Kaalim asked.