IMT begins Day 1 of probe with visit to Al-barka, interview with Asnawi

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/30 Nov) – The Malaysian-led six-country International Monitoring Team (IMT) began Wednesday its probe on the October 19 clash between Philippine government (GPH) forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Basilan with a visit to the scene of the encounter in Sitio Bakisung, Barangay Cambug, Al-barka town and an interview with the hunted MILF deputy commander, Dan Laksaw Asnawi.

The October 19 clash left 25 persons dead (19 soldiers, 5 MILF, 1 civilian), 19 injured (14 soldiers, 3 from the MILF, 2 civilians) and nearly 10,000 villagers displaced.

In a press statement, Maj. Gen. Dato Mahdi bin Yusof, IMT Head of Mission, said the “All Component IMT Verification and Assessment Group” is conducting the probe “to verify allegations of ceasefire violations as reported by the parties” and “to assess the humanitarian situation attributed by the armed clashes and the socio-economic and rehabilitation needs consequent thereto.”

Composed of representatives from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya, Japan, Norway and the European Union, the IMT has four components: Security, Socio-Economic Assistance, Civilian Protection Component, and Humanitarian, Rehabilitation and Development.

Admiral Adib of Malaysia, IMT Deputy Head of Mission, told MindaNews that the team went to Al-barka today and interviewed, among others, Asnawi, Deputy Commander of the 114th Base Command.

Asnawi is among 13 MILF commanders who are the subjects of a complaint for murder filed by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group along with “300 other John Does” for the Oct. 18 killing of the 19 soldiers.

He was also among several members facing multiple murder charges for the July 10, 2007 clash with government troops in Guinanta, Al-barka, where 14 Marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded. A joint GPH-MILF probe with Bantay Ceasefire (the IMT then had no mandate over Basilan) said the beheading was done by Abu Sayyaf members.

Aside from Asnawi, “there were many more interviewed,” Adib said, adding they would return to the area on Friday “to tie any loose ends.”

But he could not give the number of persons interviewed, adding he has to “check with other IMT members because we were spread out.”

Adib said the IMT was accompanied to Al-barka by representatives of the MILF, the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, Mindanao Peoples Caucus and Non-Violent Peace Force.

The Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) of both GPH and MILF peace panels last month filed their respective protests over alleged ceasefire violations by the other.

Brig. Gen. Ariel Bernardo, chair of the GPH CCCH, filed government’s protest on October 20 while Said Shiek, chair of the MILF CCCH, filed their protest ten days later.

The government protested the “terroristic acts” of the 114th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) while the MILF protested the “attack” of the Special Forces of the Philippine Army against the 114th Base Command.

The GPH CCCH based its protest on the complaint letter of Col. Ukol Paglala, Command Judge Advocate of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) against the MILF in Basilan, “particularly the group of 114th BC, BIAF-MILF led by Dan Laksaw Asnawi, Deputy Base Commander; Comdr. Hud Limaya, Brigade Commander, 3rd Bde, and other unit leaders for the ceasefire violations committed against government forces.”

According to the protest letter, combined elements of the Army’s 4th Special Forces Battalion, were conducting “law enforcement operations” at around 6 a.m. on October 18 in Barangays Kailih, and Cambug both of Al-Barka Municipality, Basilan Province to “arrest/apprehend Dan Laksaw Asnawi, one of the escapees of the December 31, 2009 jail break at the Basilan Provincial Jail and to verify the reported presence in the area of armed men believed to be kidnappers or members of the Abu Sayyaf Group” but were fired upon by the MILF “who were apparently in ambush position.”

It added that in the course of the gunbattle, “MILF troops from their Area of Temporary Stay at Barangay Guinanta, Municipality of Al-Barka, Basilan Province kilometers away from the scene of the encounter, reinforced and joined the MILF positioned in Barangays Kailih and Cambug in a gun battle with government troops.” It said the firefight lasted ten hours.

The MILF CCCH on the other hand based its protest on the BIAF General Staff Report dated October 27.

The MILF alleged that the Army’s Special Forces attacked the forces of the 114th Base Command around 5:15 a.m. and that the target of the attack, which it described as a “test mission for the fresh graduates of schooling from the Army’s Special Forces, was Commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi, deputy base commander.”

The protest letter noted, among others, that the government should have coordinated with the MILF on the operations in what it claimed to be an MILF area, through the peace process mechanisms agreed upon by both parties.

Mahdi’s press statement said the IMT received reports on “allegations of extensive use of violence from all sides.”

“These alleged ceasefire and International Humanitarian Law violations and the consequent aggravated humanitarian situation (have) necessitated a dedicated, full-fledge all components verification by the IMT,” he said.

The probe was supposed to have been conducted on November 15 to 24 by a Joint Independent Fact-Finding Committee (JIFFC) set up during a meeting of the IMT, the CCCH of the government and MILF peace panels and the GPH-MILF Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) on November 9, 10 and 12.

But the scheduled probe was called off on November 14 pending verification on interpretations of the IMT mandate from the government and MILF peace panel chairs.

The IMT set aside the JIFFC and embarked on the mission that started November 30 “until we finish,” said Adib.

The team is scheduled to proceed to Payao in Zamboanga Sibugay to investigate the October 15 to 26 incident in Paoay and four other neighboring towns in Zamboanga Sibugay that left four persons dead, eight injured and 19,000 residents displaced. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)