“Asked if his warning was an open declaration of war, [Interior Secretary] Puno said: ‘No. It’s a declaration of the enforcement of the law’.”
MANILA (AFP) – The Philippine government has given Muslim separatist rebels 24 hours to vacate occupied villages in the south or risk being thrown out by the military, officials warned Thursday.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno aid about 800 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels had made “incursions” in five towns and at least nine villages in Mindanao island’s North Cotabato province in recent days.
Troops estimated more than 1,500 families, or 6,000 people, had been forced to flee their homes, Puno said, adding more troops will be deployed to the region.
“We are giving those individuals 24 hours to vacate or they will be forcibly separated from the area,” Puno said at a press conference.
Asked if his warning was an open declaration of war, Puno said: “No. It’s a declaration of the enforcement of the law.”
Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said the rebels’ actions over the next 24 hours would be “a litmus test of its good faith.”
Military chief General Alexander Yano visited troops in the area and vowed that civilians would be protected and returned to their homes.
“The MILF’s illegal occupation denies the locals to live normal and peaceful lives,” Yano said. “We will be implementing the rule of law, ensure the safety of residents, and return peace and order in North Cotabato.”
But MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said their men would stay in position and demanded the government provide them with a “specific list” of areas they had allegedly illegally occupied.
“We have not encroached on any area, we have had a presence in North Cotabato for a long time,” Kabalu told AFP. “This is a careless statement (by the government) that could cause more problems.”
Sporadic skirmishes have erupted between MILF and government forces in the south since Monday — the day the Supreme Court halted the signing of a Muslim homeland agreement.
The agreement was meant to pave the way for a final political settlement to end MILF’s 30-year fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern third of this largely Roman Catholic nation.
The 12,000-strong MILF has insisted Manila cannot renege on the deal, which gives them control over large swathes of land on the southern island of Mindanao, southern Palawan and the Sulu archipelago.
Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo has said the deal was not unconstitutional and he was confident it would eventually be signed.
Interior Secretary Puno said the villages occupied in North Cotabato were among those that would have been covered by the homeland deal.
He said no armed group, whether Christian or Muslim, will be allowed to take over public land.
“We want to make sure Christians and Muslims are going to adhere (to) and be committed to the maintenance of peace in their areas,” Puno said.
National police chief Director General Avelino Razon said 900 more police officers have been deployed to back up about 500 troops already in North Cotabato.