Soldiers in Basilan: from one to four battlalions

This, as Esperon noted that the “barbaric” beheading of 10 of the 14 slain Marines "may not fall under the ambit of the peace process."

Only one battalion was assigned in Basilan as of July 10 when 14 Marine troopers allegedly in pursuit of the kidnappers of Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi near Tipo-tipo in Basilan, were killed in a clash with the MILF. Ten of the Marines were beheaded, an act condemned worldwide.

An imam (Muslim religious leader) was also found dead and investigators are still probing if he was caught in the crossfire.

The MILF denied having anything to do with the mutilation of bodies.

Esperon denied allegations the deployment is excessive.

"The deployment size is just right for the situation," he told reporters during a break from the “Periodic Assessment of Internal Security Operations under the Eastern Mindanao Command.”

Esperon said they sent eight battalions in 2002 for the rescue of the Burnhams who were kidnapped in Palawan in May 2001 and brought to Basilan.

He said a battalion of soldiers from Sulu is  expected to move Friday to Basilan to make it four battalions.

He said they are aware of the impact of the incident to the ongoing peace process with the  MILF but noted that at this point, the "barbaric act" may not fall under the ambit of the peace process.

"Therefore, there will be a need for police action, not just the AFP," he said.

"Our options range from 1 to 10. First, we wait for the results of the investigations to come. Two, for the meantime we allow police work to continue to apprehend perpetrators, or to the extreme, conduct offensives on known MILF camps where the perpetrators could be found," he said.

When pressed for his stand, he said they are not stopping the mechanisms of the peace process and that the military is "fully supporting it."

Esperon said they have maintained close interaction with the MILF over the problem through the Joint (Government-MILF) Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH).   

He said Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea, chair of the CCCH, has been tasked to probe the incident and is giving his team’s report on Friday, July 20.

But Gurrea told MindaNews, that it will take time to conduct the investigation. He said the probe is jointly done with the MILF CCCH and they are expecting the entry of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team in the probe. Basilan’s inclusion in the IMT’s area of coverage is supposed to have been discussed when the two panels meet but no meeting has been set as yet.

Esperon denied  the involvement of the United States in the  military action in Basilan.

Esperon's statements, which came four days before Arroyo's State of the Nation Address (SONA) Monday, were made in front of 14 other generals and 10 brigade commanders, and police officials present in the conference for the first assessment of the EastMinCom's internal security operations.

The former Southern Command (SouthCom) was divided into Eastern Mindanao Command and Western Mindanao Command in July last year. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)