Military operation vs Kato looms in Maguindanao

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/29 September) — A military operation looms large against breakaway Moro rebel commander Ameril Umra Kato if he refuses to yield peacefully with the “impending formal declaration of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that he’s no longer officially their member.”

Kato, whom the MILF earlier declared as “bughaat” (defiant), snubbed the September 26 deadline given him to return to the fold of the Front.

Von Al Haq, MILF spokesperson, told MindaNews Thursday here the Front’s central committee will formally release its position on Kato “very soon although this early he’s no longer with us.”

“We’ve exhausted all our efforts to reconcile with him to no avail,” he said.

Al Haq noted the MILF central committee is just waiting for the final recommendation of the Ulama Council, an independent group of Islamic scholars.

Heavily armed forces of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) somewhere in Maguindanao in this file photo taken July 22, 2011. The group formed by renegade Moro rebel leader Amerial Umra Kato may be facing military operatons now that the MILF is about to declare that Kato is no longer officially a part of MILF. MindaNews photo by Ferdinandh B. CabreraHe said the council was slated to convene today (Thursday) in an undisclosed place to hand their decision on Kato, which, Al Haq noted, will be adopted by the MILF central committee. It was the council that earlier recommended the “bughaat” tag on Kato.

The Moro rebels, through their peace negotiators, will then inform the government peace panel, through the Malaysian facilitator, about it, Al Haq said.

Brig. Gen. Ariel B. Bernardo, chairman of the government’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, separately told MindaNews late Wednesday afternoon that if Kato is officially dropped from the rolls of the MILF, the military will go after him.

“That’s because he will no longer be covered by the peace process and the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF,” he said.

But Bernardo said there would be no be immediate pursuit operations unless higher authorities give the green light.

Bernardo expressed hopes though that Kato and the MILF can still iron out their differences, one that Al Haq described as a “very dim possibility.”

Al Haq said they have asked Ismael Kalalagan, an Islamic religious leader, to twice convince Kato to return to the MILF but to no avail.

Kalalagan is close to Kato, like a father figure, as he helped the renegade rebel leader study in the Middle East, Al Haq revealed.

Out of dismay on the slow pace of the peace process, Kato broke away from the MILF and founded the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, with its armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, reportedly composed of 300 followers.

Al Haq said they have monitored that Kato has been holing up in Camp Omar, an MILF bailiwick recognized by the government and MILF panels, and which lies in the boundary of Guindulungan and Datu Hoffer towns in Maguindanao.

The area is on higher grounds and not in the marshland, he added.

Bernardo said that once a military action is finally ordered Kato will be pursued under the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).

It must be in coordination with each party’s CCCH panel to avoid misencounters, he added.

AHJAG is a joint government and MILF mechanism that seeks to interdict and isolate lawless elements that take refuge in or near MILF communities.

Al Haq said the MILF “is willing to pull out its troops in Camp Omar” to give way in the event that the government launches military action.

He added that MILF troops “would not directly chase” Kato, as this would be the role of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but would serve as blocking forces.

The renegade commander carries a P10-million bounty for his capture and is reportedly facing at least 80 criminal cases.

Kato, then as head of the MILF’s 105th base command, waged hostilities in 2008 following the botched signing of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

The MOA-AD, which was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, would have given the MILF wider political and economic powers.

The 2008 war displaced 600,000 people, the single largest internal displacement elsewhere in the world in 2008, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported.

Kato has become a key concern in the peace process between the MILF and the government under the Aquino administration.

In a press statement from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process last month, Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles said that government troops have been restrained from neutralizing the threat of Kato and his men as they are within the MILF territory.

At the resumption of formal peace talks then in Kuala Lumpur, Deles stressed that the government views the Kato issue with serious concern as it has a tremendous impact on the negotiations. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)