THE portions of the Cotabato-General Santos highway bandits occupied last week have been cleared, but the police and military are still imposing cumbersome security measures meant to protect passersby from possible sudden “hit-and-run” raids.
Three top security officials, Police Director Manuel Barcena, and Cols. Mayoralgo dela Cruz and Edmundo Pangilinan of the 1stMechanized and 601st Brigades, respectively, even urged motorists and commuters to bear with whatever inconvenience the security measures soldiers and policemen may impose to prevent bandits from gaining chance to attack.
Soldiers finally cleared the highway from bandits who used it as launching sites for their attacks in five Maguindanao last week.
Col. Dela Cruz and Maguindanao’s police director, Senior Superintendent Marcelo Pintac, led soldiers and policemen in a symbolic walkthrough on areas traversed by portions of the highway government forces reopened after four days of heavy fighting.
“The portions of the highway the bandits occupied were so quiet then,” Dela Cruz said.
Dozens of houses along the occupied route were burned down by the bandits, who also raked a roadside mosque and nearby school buildings with assault rifles.
The walls of the mosque were virtually perforated by bullets.
Soldiers and policemen first cleared the highway of roadblocks and trees felled and gathered on its center by the gunmen.
Empty shells of rifle ammunition littered the highway, some portions stained with blood, apparently shed by rebels who were either killed or wounded in the military’s clearing operations.
“We have enough forces serving as road security to protect the route and prevent them from coming back,” Dela Cruz said.
Dela Cruz, however, said they still have to assess the overall security situation in the conflict-stricken towns and determine when to bring back evacuees to their villages.
“Many of them have nowhere to return to because their houses were burned down by the bandits,” Dela Cruz said.
“We are still assessing the situation, we are yet to decide when we will allow the return of evacuees,” he said.
Dela Cruz said while they have cleared the highway from rebel occupation, they would have to close it to traffic every evening from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following day to prevent vehicles from plying the route at nighttime until dawn.
“This measure will ensure the safety of passersby,” he said.
Soldiers held for about half an hour last Wednesday morning dozens of vehicles bound for Tacurong City and Isulan from Cotabato City, and organized a convoy to ensure a tight surveillance of motorists and communities getting through.
The convoy made it through past 7:00 a.m. and the highway, subsequently, was declared open to public use until before sunset of the same day.
The 27-member Regional Legislative Assembly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is to conduct an inquiry on last week’s attacks by bandits in Maguindanao and look into its long-term implications to the southern peace process and the reform agenda for the ARMM.
The central leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front already asked the national government to flex its muscles and neutralize the BIFM, led by radical jihadists booted out from the MILF due to abuses and insubordination.
Members of the ARMM’s law-making body, dubbed as the “little Congress” of the region, announced here Tuesday that they are also to help determine possible peaceful measures that can stave off any repeat of the BIFM’s violent attacks.
Peace activists, some of them involved in various foreign-assisted projects complementing the government’s peace overtures with the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front, said concerned agencies and foreign donors should focus on immediate interventions meant to rebuild the communities affected by the conflict, particularly those that dwell in the mountains at the western side of the conflict-stricken Datu Saudi, Datu Unsay, Shariff Aguak, and Guindulungan towns.
Maj. Gen. Rey Ardo, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said there is an urgent need for the construction of farm-to-market roads connecting the affected hinterland communities to trading centers of the five municipalities the BIFM attacked last week.
Ardo said the BIFM used the area’s underdevelopment and grinding poverty griping native inhabitants to obscure its setting up of enclaves there and run a shadow government that imposed a Taliban-style justice system.
Aveen Acuña-Gulo, manager of the foreign-supported Indigenous People’s Development Project (IPDEV), said projects meant to empower the displaced natives in the former BIFM strongholds have to directly involve the local communities.
“These projects must be culture-sensitive and must not dislodge the area’s indigenous people due to what we call `development aggression’ which causes more troubles in the communities,” said Gulo, whose office is jointly bankrolled by the European Union and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of Germany.
The IPDEV also recommended the construction of schools and health centers in the Teduray domains in areas affected by last week’s conflicts.
The acting governor of the ARMM, Mujiv Hataman, said the Regional Peace and Order Council was elated with the military’s having reopened the stretches in Maguindanao of the Cotabato-General Santos City highway the BIFM bandits occupied for four days last week.
The ARMM governor also commended the 1st Mechanized Brigade under Army Col. Mayoralgo dela Cruz and the Army’s 601st Brigade, led by Col. Edmundo Pangilinan, for the liberation of the BIFM’s two major hilltop enclaves on mountains overlooking the five towns the group repeatedly harassed from August 5 to 11.
Hataman said it was also vital to the greater interest of the local public that the BIFM gave up the camps so that sections of the highway the rebels occupied will again be safe. (JOHN M. UNSON)