In war vs terrorists, Duterte vows: “I will not allow civilians to be killed”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/19 March) — President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday said military operations against terrorist groups are focused only on “selective targets” because “I will not allow civilians to be killed in the process.”

Duterte’s statement came 11 days after a year-old baby girl was killed and an 11-year old boy injured in Basilan during military operations in pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf, for which the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) chief apologized.

At the press conference before departing for Myanmar Sunday afternoon, Duterte said it has taken time for government to crush the terrorist Abu Sayyaf, Maute group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) because it has “to go into selective targets” and that if they are in the midst of or near populated areas, “we just cannot do it.”

“Matagal na sana itong natapos” (this would have been finished) if there were no civilians “but just like the communists, every time that they (terrorists) are cornered, they mix with the the people” and when they do that, “we have to stop operations,” he explained.

“That is (why) it takes us time to do it because we try to avoid hitting civilians,” Duterte said, adding that only when the terrorists are “grouped in the mountains and are ready for the offensive and that is where we also marshal our troops and our weapons to challenge them. But once the battle is over and they begin to merge and run to their habitations and houses, the offensive stops and I will not allow civilians to be killed in the process.”

“Ano ba namang kasalanan ng bata, pati mga babae, matatanda? (What is the fault of children, women and the elderly?), so it behooves on the government to just  lunukin na lang nila yang sayang yung panahon na yun (accept the fact that it was time wasted) because it ‘aint the right thing to do,” Duterte added.

Year-old girl killed

Reacting to Duterte’s latest pronouncement, Amirah Lidasan, spokesperson of Suara Bangsamoro told MindaNews that Duterte’s “all-out war policy and order of military airstrikes did just that — affected  civilians, killed civilians including children.”

A year-old baby girl, Nurmayda Abbi, was killed in a military operation on March 8, in Barangay Tum-os, Tabuan Lasa, Basilan, purportedly to arrest Abu Sayyaf members with standing warrants.

The baby was hit on the right side of her head and “immediately died due to indiscriminate firing,” Suara Bangsamoro said. Bullets also hit the stomach of an 11-year old boy.

Suara Bangsamoro said the raid was done early in the morning, right after the Fajr prayer (pre-dawn prayer for Muslims), and targeted Hadji Billamin Hassan, identified by the military as a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) with standing warrant for arson. Another resident, Nuruddin Musaddul Muhlis, 33, was also killed.

According to a report of Suara Bangsamoro, Hassan was not an Abu Sayyaf member. It said Hassan “shouted at the raiding team identifying himself as an MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front member) and informing them that children were hit and there were other casualties due to the indiscriminate firing.”

Karapatan in a statement said Hassan was a former Bayan Muna coordinator in Basilan and an MILF member “who advocated for peace and worked for the Bangsamoro Development Agency.”

Suara Bangsamoro quoted witnesses as saying Hassan was dragged toward the dock, hands tied behind his back, and his dead body found by relatives  “in the military detachment in Brgy. Tabuk, Isabela City.”

A press release from WestMinCom dated March 8 but e-mailed to the media evening of March 9 mentioned nothing about civilian casualties. It said four “notorious” members of the Abu Sayyaf, “including the kin of top leader Isnilon Hapilon,” Ustadz Mobin Kulin, a.k.a Mulawin, were killed in the joint conduct of law enforcement operations of the Joint Task Force Basilan and the police in Basilan early morning on March 8.

ABS-CBN News quoted Galvez as saying the military was running after a certain Moblin Kulin alias Mulawin, an alleged Abu Sayyaf member who had a standing arrest warrant for kidnapping and serious illegal detention. He said Kulin was killed but troops failed to recover his remains.

Galvez, the report said, tagged Hassan as a member of Abu Sayyaf, but Hassan’s family denied this.

Hassan’s family, along with the relatives of other victims, filed a complaint before the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) on March 14.

Galvez apologized to the parents of the baby girl and the boy. “We are deeply sorry for the loss of the child, that is why we apologize to the family. We will assist the other child in the medication in the hospital,”  Zamboanga Today Online quoted him as saying. Galvez visited the boy at the hospital and vowed to cooperate with the CHR in its investigation.

Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, said, “sorry doesn’t cut it.”

No solution

Karapatan said the baby was “the first child killed under the Duterte regime” during military operations. Palabay said soldiers involved in the March 8 incident should be “prosecuted and punished.”

Drieza Liningding,  executive director of the Marawi City-based Moro Consensus Gorup told MindaNews on Sunday that they welcome the President’s statement and “hope government agents conducting operations will respect basic human rights.”

But Liningding, an avid supporter of Duterte, maintains “the military option will never work.”

Liningding on March 14 posted a statement addressed to Duterte a day after the air strikes against alleged members of the BIFF in Datu Salibo, Maguindanao that awakened residents at 2 a.m. and forced them to flee. “Mr. President,” Liningding wrote, “you of all people should know that military solution will never work in the Bangsamoro. It will only worsen the situation and produce more extremists from our ranks.”

“There is a solution that is more effective and that is the shift to federalism,” he said.

According to Lidasan, Duterte “should listen more to the reports of human rights organizations than his bloodthirsty security advisers and Defense Chief.”

She said more civilians will be affected and more cases of human rights violations will be filed against his military and police if Duterte does not lift his “militaristic policy” in dealing with the Moro.

The Duterte administration is attending to the implementation of peace agreements with two Moro revolutionary groups — the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF.

“All-out war”

Duterte in a midnight press  conference after a joint command conference in Malacanang on January 29-30 ordered “full press operations” against the terrorist groups.

Asked in the same press conference if they were waging an “all-out war” against terrorists, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana replied, “you can say it is an all out war” noting that Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and 40 of his people from Basilan were reportedly with the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur “with the intention of organizing the ISIS-connected group.”

In a statement on January 31, Lorenzana urged the public to cooperate with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “to avoid any untoward incident or injury” as he  declared the “all-out operations” against terrorists in Mindanao “in full swing.”

He said the AFP “will use its ground, air and sea assets against our enemies and leave them no room for escape.”

Duterte is the fifth President since Fidel Ramos to attempt to crush the Abu Sayyaf and the second President to attempt to deal with the BIFF and Maute Group.

Before his January 2017 order to go after the terrorists, Duterte in late August ordered the military and police to “seek out the Abu Sayyaf and destroy them.”

“Seek them out in their lairs and destroy them… Ang mga Abu Sayyaf destroy them, period,”  he said in a midnight press conference on August 24-25, hours after the Abu Sayyaf was reported to have beheaded an 18-year old male resident of Sulu. The son of a court stenographer was kidnapped by the terrorist group on July 16.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)