The good thing about the ICG Report is it is able to narrate in authoritative and balanced way shrouded and controversial happenings that happened within the context of the Mindanao conflict. Let us read their version of the Al-Barka incident where trapped Marines (their vehicle bogged down) got trapped, were overran and where the majority was beheaded. Al-Barka is a new town on the southeast portion of Basilan.
From ICG Asia Report No. 152 (May 14, 2008):
“…On 10 June 2007, Fr. Giancarlo Bossi, an Italian priest, was kidnapped from his parish in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province. MILF forces helping in the search for Bossi stood down at the end of the month, expressing concern that a mistaken encounter might occur in the absence of a clear AHJAG mandate, since it had expired on 21 June. Ten days later, those fears were realized in Al-Barka.
“Basilan’s unique volatility arises from the fact that the small island is home to all three main separatist rebellions — MNLF, MILF and ASG. Clans are often involved in all three networks, as well as local electoral politics, where access to high-powered firearms is at a premium. Acting on the information that Fr. Bossi had been sighted in Al-Barka municipality, Philippines marines set out on patrol on the morning of 10 July 2007.
“Two days earlier, Basilan marine commander Col. Romeo Alivio told Crisis Group that unusually large formations of armed men–several hundred strong–had been making their presence felt in the area for some months. Rather than attempting to distinguish their component members, which could have involved a complicated “paper trail” with the ceasefire committee, Alivio chose to regard them as undifferentiated “lawless elements”. As his men turned back for base camp with no sign of Bossi, a truck bogged down in the mud, and following standard operating procedure, marines fanned out around the vehicle to secure the perimeter. The site–in Guinanta village–is the location of two of the MILF’s three brigade commands in Basilan. Unknown to the marines, MILF forces were closely observing their movements. As the marines came within meters of the guerillas’ high ground, gunfire erupted.
“A CCCH [Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (GRP-MILF)] official described what ensued as a “pintakasi” (a fight in which everyone joins in). Once combat began, armed men from surrounding neighborhoods, including ASG fighters, joined against the marines in the hope of sharing the spoils–captured equipment, arms and ammuninition–or of avenging past wrongs. Followers of local politicians were embittered by the marines’ rigid enforcement of the previous May’s election gun ban. Fourteen marines died, ten of whom were decapitated and otherwise mutilated. Triggered by lack of coordination between the AFP and the MILF, the Al-Barka incident demonstrated the power of a momentary tactical alliance across organizational boundaries. An MNLF commander from Basilan noted: “MILF’s three brigades [about 500 men]will become 3,000 men if ‘loose arms’ on the island are coordinated by the failure of the peace talks.”
Notes (culled from ICG Report No. 152):
1. The AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Committee was designed to facilitate coordination between the Philippine government and the MILF to share intelligence on terrorists and avoid accidental clashes while government forces pursued them….as a counter-terror and conflict management mechanism that worked…a similar arrangement should be arranged with the MNLF. The problem is that it will only work if there is progress on the political front–that is in peace negotiations–so that the insurgents see concrete benefits from their cooperation with the government. Ceasefire mechanisms like AHJAG depend on substantive progress toward a comprehensive peace pact….
2. For more than two years, the AHJAG prevented conflict escalation as the search for terrorists intensified in MILF strongholds in western Mindanao and led to a few cases of the MILF’s disciplining extremists in its own ranks. It helped force the ASG’s core group, including Khadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman, to Sulu, where they were killed. This has come at a heavy price in Sulu, where no equivalent ceasefire machinery exists to separate jihadis from the dominant local guerilla force, the…MNLF. Instead, heavy-handed offensives against the ASG and its foreign jihadi allies have repeatedly spilled over into MNLF communities, driving some insurgents into closer cooperation with the terrorists, instead of the government.
(Photo credit: Mindanao Examiner)