Thursday, February 19, 2015

BIFF, MILF war: Army to protect civilians

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb 20): BIFF, MILF war: Army to protect civilians

CIVILIANS caught in the fighting between Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters seek refuge in a gymnasium in Pagalungan town, Maguindanao province, on Feb. 17. Gun battles have displaced up to 20,000 residents of several villages in the town and in Pikit town in North Cotabato province. JEOFFREY MAITEM/INQUIRER MINDANAO

CIVILIANS caught in the fighting between Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters seek refuge in a gymnasium in Pagalungan town, Maguindanao province, on Feb. 17. Gun battles have displaced up to 20,000 residents of several villages in the town and in Pikit town in North Cotabato province. JEOFFREY MAITEM/INQUIRER MINDANAO

DATU ODIN SINSUAT, Maguindanao—The military would serve as a buffer to prevent civilian casualties in the ongoing fighting between two rival Moro guerrilla groups that has spread to more villages in the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao, the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines said here.

Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., AFP chief, said the 6th Infantry Division of the Army would send soldiers to areas where a group of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters is battling a group from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Since last week, members of MILF and BIFF have been at war in remote areas of Pikit town in North Cotabato and Pagalungan in Maguindanao, sending hundreds of residents fleeing.

Common enemy

“We have to look into this. While it could be only clan war, we have to step in to put a stop to the fighting,” said Catapang, interviewed after the turnover by MILF of 16 firearms belonging to Special Action Force commandos who were killed in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao during an operation to get international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan.”

At least seven Pikit villages had become ghost towns when BIFF gunmen came and torched houses. BIFF also occupied several villages in Pagalungan, which is adjacent to Pikit.

Catapang said the deployment of soldiers to the site of the fighting would have to be properly coordinated.

“We are also at war with the BIFF so we have to look into this so as not to complicate things,” he said.

20,000 flee

North Cotabato Gov. Lala Taliño-Mendoza said more than 20,000 people from Pikit town and Pagalungan had been displaced by the fighting between an MILF unit under Jack Abas and BIFF.

Six MILF men, so far, had been killed, including Datukong Ampuan, an MILF unit leader. There is no word on BIFF casualties.

“Our enemy here is only Commander Jack Abas because he vowed to push us out of the area in exchange for money,” said BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama in a phone interview.

Mama said Abas launched attacks against BIFF after he was paid by Mendoza, which the governor denied.

“Abas is a very feudal man, like a datu. He does not want anyone to threaten his influence in the same territory, most especially if this person was his former subordinate,” Mama said.

Abas maintains that the operation against BIFF was one against criminality.

Clash spreading

Reports reaching the Armed Forces’ headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City said the fighting had spread to more areas.

Social workers in Pagalungan town reported more than 9,000 people in the town fleeing the clashes and taking shelter in three evacuation centers.

Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, chief of the AFP public affairs office, said it was a rido, or clan war between Abas of MILF and a BIFF group led by Commander Karialan.

Jo Henry, information officer of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team, said the fighting had spread to Datu Montawal, another town in Maguindanao.

In Moro community, gunfire meant clan war starting

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb 20): In Moro community, gunfire meant clan war starting

It was a community used to gunfire so when the head of a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) unit in the village of Libutan in Mamasapano town, heard gunshots at dawn of Jan. 25, he thought it was from two armed groups settling their disputes through the only means they know–the barrel of the gun.

Hadji Muhalidin, nephew of MILF unit commander Ustadz Manan, said he got a phone call from Manan around 5:30 a.m. asking Muhalidin to check the source of gunfire in the area and, if possible, help pacify the warring parties.

Manan, whose unit is under the MILF’s 105th Base Command of Zacaria Goma and not Ustadz Abdulwahid Tundoc’s 108th Base Command, took a call from Inquirer but said he is authorizing his nephew, Muhalidin, to talk on his behalf.

Inevitable clash

Muhalidin said he was with relatives when they encountered one of the groups of Special Action Force (SAF) commandos that opened fire at them around 7 a.m. The first volley of gunfire killed Guinibon Angkay, 65, also an uncle of Muhalidin.

Muhalidin said the clash became inevitable as more armed men emerged.

Muhalidin said his group’s priority was to flee and bring Angkay’s body home. He said his group of five men crept their way out of the gunfight.

They found out who the armed men were upon their return home, according to Muhalidin. They turned out to be SAF members who had been seen by residents earlier gathering on the Tukanalipao Highway.

Muhalidin said his group never returned to the clash site, since his family had to attend to Angkay’s burial rites and to visiting relatives paying their last respects to the dead.

He said it was “difficult to speculate” and that he could not confirm whether international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” had guards and had shot it out with the policemen. “It’s hard to speak about something we didn’t see,” he said.

Muhalidin said contrary to some government reports, his uncle, Ustadz Manan, did not own the nipa hut that sat close to the hut where Marwan was found in the village of Pidsandawan in Mamasapano.

The Inquirer tried to get a picture of Marwan’s hut but was told by residents that the area is no longer what it used to be.

All-out war

Among the armed men that clashed with the SAF commandos are members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The BIFF, according to its spokesperson Abu Misri Mama, is ready for all-out war if that’s what politicians in Manila wanted.

“If they really want war, (President) Aquino and these politicians should bring guns and march to Maguindanao,” said Mama in a phone interview.

“If they will come here, we will give them what they want. We will show them a real war that is far different from what they see in the movies,” Mama said, taking potshots at Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano who cited movie plots during his questioning at a Senate hearing on the Mamasapano bloodshed.

Mama said an all-out war, however, would not just hurt the BIFF or MILF. “Civilians will suffer most,” he said.

Philippine justifies possible US assistance in Maguindanao

From the Philippine Star (Feb 19): Philippine justifies possible US assistance in Maguindanao

Malacanang, the Philippine presidential palace, said Tuesday it does not see anything wrong if the United States assisted Philippine authorities in the operation against two suspected terrorists in of Maguindanao on Jan. 25.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said that Zulkifli bin Hir, and Abdul Basit Usman, the high-value targets of the police operation, were terrorists.

He said that terrorism is a "transnational crime" and the Philippines has been coordinating and cooperating with the United States and other countries in the fight against terrorism.

Any cooperation that United States might have provided to the Philippines to neutralize the suspected terrorists could be in the form of "information sharing or technical intelligence," he said.

But Coloma said that under the Philippine laws, direct foreign participation on law enforcement and other types of security operation is prohibited.

Zulkifli, who was on the terror list of the United States, was neutralized in the operation, while Usman escaped.

Misuari fortifies stronghold in Sulu

From the Philippine Star (Feb 20): Misuari fortifies stronghold in Sulu

File photo

Supporters of Nur Misuari have ringed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)’s mountain stronghold in Sulu with heavy guns, including portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons in anticipation of a military offensive against armed groups in Mindanao not involved in peace talks with the government.

An MNLF leader said Misuari has also ordered the consolidation of his forces in mainland Mindanao following the circulation in Central Mindanao of an advisory on a “secret all-out military operation.”

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has denied disseminating the advisory.
MNLF spokesman Absalom Cerveza said the MNLF has long been prepared for any outbreak of hostilities, but he declined to confirm or deny the arms buildup.

“The MNLF remains in defensive position and we will act in self-defense,” he said.

Cerveza said the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has returned to the United Nations committee on decolonization documents of the 1996 peace accord with the MNLF after the government forged another peace accord with the MILF.

The OIC brokered the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF, he added.

Cerveza said the OIC has tossed back to the UN the peace treaty after MNLF reverted its position from autonomy to independence as the new accord with MILF deals with same territory and people.

“The OIC has recognized MNLF as the sole representative of the Bangsamoro people in the Philippines,” he said. “In fact, chairman Misuari was granted a seat as permanent observer at the OIC.”

Cerveza said the MNLF is just awaiting notice from the UN recognizing their right to self-determination.

Misuari has summoned all MNLF leaders in Mindanao to a meeting to inform them on the progress in declaring a Bangsamoro Republik of Mindanao, he added.

Cerveza said the MNLF has renounced armed struggle and opted to pursue its political objective peacefully.

“The MNLF is leaving to the UN committee on decolonization its petition for self-rule,” he said.

War in Mindanao: What are the internal and external repercussions? Last of 3 parts

From InterAksyon (Feb 19): War in Mindanao: What are the internal and external repercussions? Last of 3 parts (by Jose Antonio A. Custodio)

[Editor's note: Jose Antonio A. Custodio is a security and defense consultant and was a technical adviser for a US defense company working for the US Pacific Command. He also specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He also teaches history and political science at several universities in Metro Manila.

In the first two installments of his piece, Custodio reviewed Estrada’s all-out war campaign and the military preparedness should it go on an all-out war. In this last part, he will answer: What are the internal and external repercussions of returning to a war footing with the Moros?]

A key consideration here is to determine what is the objective of an all-out war? Is the objective to eliminate the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)? Or is it to punish the MILF? Can such objectives be met without the risk of degenerating into full-scale conflict given the fact that it is difficult to distinguish the two secessionist groups from each other?

During the 2000 Abubakar Campaign, the objective of the AFP was simply to eject the MILF from the camps that they occupied and this was done during a period stretching from March to July 2000. However as the secessionist army managed to survive the assault, it made the government victory a hollow one as the MILF lived to fight another day.

Thus if the decision to utilize military force is used, the objective has to be determined. Launching retaliatory strikes or occupying camps will not destroy the secessionist’s capacity to resist. Launching an offensive to destroy the secessionist army will not be a quick affair, will drag on for a very extended period of time, will open up new fronts, exhaust ammunition stocks, create wear and tear on military equipment, will require the mobilization of the nation and the requisite political will to sustain it and ironically there is no guarantee of success, but the economic and human costs have already been estimated in studies of such a conflict occurring.

What would be the MILF strategy?

The secessionist strategy against a military offensive is simply to outlast the capacity of the government to conduct the operations.

Although in some areas MILF forces will try to engage the government forces, it is expected that they will eventually resort to guerrilla warfare to evade and tie down the military and launch terrorist operations against soft targets throughout the Philippines, possibly in Metro Manila.

Those terror operations will distract and divert the attention of the government as there will be a public clamor for protection.

Weathering, withstanding, and surviving the assaults of the government will be a victory for the secessionists even if they constantly lose in battles.

A bonus for the secessionists is if they can replicate their battlefield victory at Mamasapano against regular military formations. The longer the campaign drags on, the better the chances that a ceasefire will occur and negotiations will resume.

That is the reality today.

The secessionists realize that the world is different now and is more sympathetic to ethnic self-determination than before and they are taking advantage of it. They also know that the Philippine government will have great difficulty in sustaining operations as it will definitely affect the state of the economy and the stability of the nation, diminish the combat effectiveness of the military, and eventually there will be strong pressure to negotiate again.

All that they need to do is to survive the offensives and appear to be receptive to peace and that together with all the other previously mentioned factors will generate the local and international pressure to declare a ceasefire and to return to the negotiating table.

Internal repercussions

It needs to be emphasized that the internal security situation in the Philippines is composed of two elements: the threat of secession and the lingering communist insurgency.

Paradoxically, although the secessionist threat has the infinitely greater potential of tearing the country apart, there are some who still cling to the notion that the communist threat is the more serious one no matter how moribund and ineffective are their front organizations and how weak the NPA is.

Apparently, old Cold War habits die hard. There are times that these two threats do complement each other as both tie down military and police assets and the NPA takes advantage of government concentration on the secessionists especially when military units deployed against the communist rebels are stripped of personnel to reinforce operations in Mindanao.

Hence the government has to expect increased NPA activity once fighting breaks out against the secessionists.

Communal strife can rear its ugly head and have disastrous repercussions on the human rights situation in Mindanao as armed groups based on ethnic grounds on both sides may undertake indiscriminate reprisals against the innocent.

There is much chatter by some people in social media about the need to revitalize the Ilagas without really carefully thinking what the impact of such an armed group will have on the conflict.

Degeneration into ethnic communal conflict will surely bring in international attention and it will be immaterial if the Bangsamoro Basic Law is constitutional or not as the international community out of humanitarian concerns will impose a political solution that will see a division along ethnic lines to prevent the killings from continuing.

External effects

A general war in Mindanao given today’s situation in the Middle East carries with it the possibility of attracting all sorts of nut heads, lone wolves, and extremists into our shores with the declared intention of waging war against the infidels.

The government has to take into consideration an increased influx of such types into the Philippines and this will severely task the intelligence and security apparatus of the state.

Some will get through and if they manage to carry out their attacks against soft targets in Metro Manila and elsewhere it will add further damage to the social, political, and economic fiber of the country which would already be reeling from the conflict down south.

Lastly, it is to be expected that China will take advantage of our renewed internal focus on protracted operations against the secessionists and other rebels. They will correctly deduce that the internal focus of the Philippine government will derail the efforts to modernize the military and other security and maritime agencies as funds that had been earmarked for modernization will be diverted to the operations in Mindanao.

They will also deduce that the Philippines will not try to do anything more in the West Philippine Sea so as not to open up another front that will require it to take some form of action when it is already heavily involved in Mindanao.

In short, whatever window of opportunity that there is now to stave off China’s territorial ambitions will be lost, as by the time the government returns to paying attention to the WPS following a termination of hostilities with the secessionists, the situation will have changed as new Chinese bases constructed on reclaimed reefs will throttle Filipino installations in the Kalayaan Island Group and deny the Philippines of its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).


Basilan clash cited coordination model

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb 20): Basilan clash cited coordination model

Military officers and troops are citing a Feb. 15 clash between Army soldiers and members of the terror group Abu Sayyaf in Basilan province as an example of how proper coordination could save lives in battle.

The fight in Al-Barka town, according to soldiers and officers who took part in it, could have been a debacle similar to the Jan. 25 bloodbath that saw 44 police commandos, 18 guerrillas and five civilians dead in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao province.

Timely reinforcement and more firepower saved the day for the Army, according to one of the soldiers.

“Had it not been for the immediate reinforcement, it would have become a free-for-all,” said Pfc Melchor Solayao of the Army’s 87th Infantry Battalion.

Solayao said his team had served as a support group for lead teams operating against the Abu Sayyaf group led by Basir Kasaran.

At dawn of Feb. 15, he said his platoon proceeded to Kuhon Lenuh in Al-Barka.

“We were about 20 to 25 meters from the target when the encounter took place. It was still dark then,” he said.

Pfc Reynaldo Taroy Jr. of the the 61st Reconnaissance Company said that during the first few minutes of battle, the number of Abu Sayyaf men was not big, but as hours passed, it went up to about a hundred.

All of them were well-equipped, Taroy said.

“This was when we decided to ask for reinforcement and air support,” he said.

By this time, three soldiers from the first team and three more from the second were already wounded.

“The volume of fire from the Abu Sayyaf was great, it seemed they were not running out of bullets. We could not keep up with them,” Solayao said.

Rear Admiral Reynaldo Yoma, commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao and overall head of the Joint Task Force Zambasulta (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi), said Army officials quickly sent air and naval support and more soldiers.

Taroy said attack helicopters arrived at the clash site around
10 a.m., “but there were wounded soldiers and the bandits started shooting at the helicopters.”

The air strike was aborted, he said.

According to Yoma, one of the helicopters, an MG-520, was hit by sniper fire but suffered only minor damage.

The arrival of more troops from the 13th Scout Ranger Company and 18th Infantry Battalion, and naval support forced the Abu Sayyaf to retreat, according to Yoma.

Solayao and Taroy said had the reinforcement failed to arrive on time, the bandits could have slaughtered the soldiers.

In the aftermath of the clash, six soldiers and five civilians, including two children, suffered shrapnel wounds.

Yoma said the civilians are relatives of Kasaran, the Abu Sayyaf group leader.

“They were not targets but it so happened that they were in the area,” he said.

Off Subject/Of General Intelligence Interest: India clears $8-b plan to build warships

Off Subject/Of General Intelligence Interest from the Manila Standard Today (Feb 19): India clears $8-b plan to build warships

New Delhi—India has cleared an $8 billion plan to build seven warships as part of a twin push to ramp up local production and counter an increasing assertive China, a defence ministry official said Thursday.

The move is seen as a way to narrow India’s huge gap with China’s advanced naval warfare systems while boosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to manufacture defence equipment locally.

India, which is surrounded by hostile neighbours in Pakistan and China, is in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar upgrade of its ageing military hardware and recently lifted a cap on foreign investment in defence.

“The cabinet committee on security has cleared the proposal to build seven stealth frigates at domestic shipyards,” a source in the defence ministry told AFP of the meeting on Monday.

Four warships will be constructed at Mazagon Docks in Mumbai and the other three at Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers in Kolkata.

The frigates will be equipped with stealth technology, making it harder to detect by enemy radars or other tracking systems.

The Times of India said the cabinet committee had also given the go-ahead for six nuclear-powered submarines as part of another $8 billion project when it met earlier this week.

Since his sweeping election victory in May, Modi’s right-wing government has cleared several proposals aimed at revamping and renewing the country’s Soviet-era military.

Modi has also worked to shore up regional alliances since he came to power in India, which has a longstanding territorial dispute with China over a remote Himalayan region.

Night flying helicopters part of PAF pilot training

From the Sun Star-Davao (Feb 19): Night flying helicopters part of PAF pilot training

THE helicopters seen flying over Davao City on Wednesday night are part of the proficiency training for Philippine Air Force pilots, nervous city residents were told.

"It was night proficiency training for pilots of the Air Force. It's a regular exercise from time to time in case of emergency. There is nothing to worry about," said Major General Eduardo Ano, chief of the Army's 10th Infantry Division.

The PAF Tactical Operations Group (TOG) plans, controls and coordinates the employment of tactical air support elements for the military in Eastern Mindanao.

The 10th ID spokesperson, Lieutenant Vergel Lacambra, also said that before the training was launched, they airlifted the casualties from a clash between the government troops and communist rebels in Mati City in Davao Oriental.

Ano said another encounter happened while troops were pursuing the rebels who attacked the Mati police station last Sunday.

Lacambra said the second clash took place in Sitio Kupot, Barangay Banglasan in Montevista town, Compostela Valley at around 9 a.m. Thursday. The fighting lasted for about 15 minutes.

He said one member of the New People's Army's Southern Mindanao Regional Command (SMRC) Front 3 was killed during the clash with the troops from the Philippine Army's 25th Infantry Battalion.

First out of three C-295 aircraft of PHL Air Force

From Ang Malaya (Feb 19): First out of three C-295 aircraft of PHL Air Force

A photo of one C-295 built by Airbus Military/CASA was uploaded by A. Muñiz Zaragüeta of Spain on February 10 at The photo was described as “first of three ordered C-295M to Philipphine Air Force.”

The description added “note [the] insignia of the Philippine Air Force in tail and insignia of 223rd Tactical Airlift Squadron in nose.”

223rd Tactical Airlift Squadron is part of 220th Airlift Wing based at Benito Ebuen Air Base, Mactan Island, Cebu.

Philippine Air Force is yet to make a comment regarding the uploaded photo.

In early reports, first unit of PAF’s C-295 will be delivered August 2015 and the second one will arrive by March of 2016. While the third aircraft is expected in September 2016.

The said firm will be providing the Air Force with three C295 planes for PhP 5,288,609,983.99. C295 is a smaller aircraft compared to C130.

“The Airbus Military C295 is a new generation, very robust and reliable, highly versatile tactical airlifter able to carry up to nine tonnes of payload or up to 71 personnel,” the manufacturer said.

2 NPA rebels give up amid intense AFP operations in Sarangani

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb 19): 2 NPA rebels give up amid intense AFP operations in Sarangani

Two alleged communist rebels, who were among 30 members of the New People’s Army (NPA) engaged by the Army in Alabel, Sarangani, on Monday, surrendered on Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Felix Ronnie Babac, commander of the 73rd Infantry Battalion (IB), said Thursday that Mark Arnold Sawal Budion and Bedeo Ansay, both 21 and residents of Barangay Datal Anggas in Alabel, yielded amid continued military operations following the clash.

“They were still being investigated,” he said, adding the two might have been force to give up by the intense pursuit operations.

Seven NPA guerrillas, including Front Committee 71 commander Tolentino Bariquit, 60, were killed in Monday’s clash, according to Babac. The officer described Bariquit, alias Brigol, as an NPA political officer.

The Army recovered 9 firearms, landmines and personal belongings from the slain rebels, he said.

Meanwhile, Babac said the result of Monday’s clash was among the biggest accomplishments of the 73rd IB in recent months.

Because of this, the platoon involved in the incident was recognized by Armed Forces Chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang on Wednesday.

“2Lt. Jershon Sanchez, the scout platoon team leader, received an interim medal (Triple M) for distinguished conduct star, which is a step away from the Medal of Valor, the most coveted award to soldiers in the battlefield,” he said.

Babac said Sanchez would also be promoted to 1st Lieutenant for the feat of his platoon.

Conflicts endanger billions worth of projects in ARMM

From the Philippine Star (Feb 19): Conflicts endanger billions worth of projects in ARMM

The iconic wooden footbridge in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao, less than 20 meters from the scene of the deadly January 25 encounter between policemen and Moro rebels that shook the nation to its core, will be replaced with a P15 million worth concrete bridge to be constructed within the year by the public works department of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. John Unson

A resumption of hostilities between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could imperil close to P6 billion worth of ongoing infrastructure projects in five southern provinces.

Hadji Emil Sadain, regional public works secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said most of their on-going projects in ARMM's five provinces, all vulnerable to conflicts, were designed to restore normalcy in Moro communities made impoverished by conflicts in decades past.

He said their costly projects that could be stifled by armed conflicts are meant to complement the normalization process and the decommissioning of rebels the government and the MILF are to bilaterally initiate based on all socio-economic and security agreements both sides had crafted in the past 18 years, including the development agenda of the March 27, 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB).

“We will instantly lose all of these on-going projects if war will erupt, if the peace process will collapse as a consequence of what is now more known as the `January 25, 2015 Mamasapano incident.’ That incident should not affect the peace process,” Sadain said.

Most of the ARMM’s ongoing projects, such as roads, barangay centers, bridges, ports and water systems are being implemented in far-flung areas in the region, Sadain said.

Sadain said his subordinate-district engineers in the ARMM’s Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces are against any resumption of hostilities between the government and the MILF.

“No one from all of the employees of the ARMM’s Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) wants a protracted conflict in any part of the autonomous region,” Sadain said.

Sadain, a Tausog, said he himself had experienced how serious are the consequences of armed conflicts and how civilians could suffer from its brunt.

He said his parents were forced to relocate their family from Jolo, the capital town of Sulu, to Zamboanga City to escape from the hostilities that plagued the island province during the height of the uprising in the 1970s by the Moro National Liberation Front.

There are more than P1 billion worth of on-going projects in Maguindanao, Sadain said.

Maguindanao is a known MILF bastion, where the group has enclaves in all of its 36 towns.

Sadain said ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman has ordered the immediate construction of a P15 million worth bridge that would traverse a river separating two agricultural sites in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town, located in the second district of Maguindanao.

The proposed bridge will replace the wooden footbridge near the scene of the deadly January 25 encounter between members of the police’s Special Action Force and MILF guerillas.

At least 44 SAF operatives, 18 MILF members and five innocent civilians were killed in the incident.

Sadain said the DPWH-ARMM will also construct soon a 1.5 kilometer P10 million worth road that would straddle through farming enclaves in Barangay Tukanalipao.

“The funds to be spent for these two new projects will be drawn from savings our department generated in the past two years,” Sadain said.

The DPWH-ARMM, touted during the time of past administrations as second most corrupt regional agency, next to the education department, generated more than P400 million worth of savings in the past 24 months as a result of the stringent handling of its coffer by Sadain and Hataman.

The DPWH-ARMM was, in fact, adjudged as the regional government’s “top performer" for 2013 to 2014 by a survey group comprised of representatives from various civil society organizations, government and private auditors and prominent peace activists owing to its extensive implementation of projects and transparent handling of state funds earmarked for infrastructure packages.

The feat bagged for Sadain the coveted “most outstanding regional secretary award,” which was one of the highlights of the commemoration of the 25th founding anniversary of ARMM from November 17 to December 17 last year.

"If war in ARMM erupts, as what people outside wants, all of our projects for underdeveloped communities will be gone, gone swiftly," Sadain said.

BIFF on a rampage, burns 20 houses

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Feb 19): BIFF on a rampage, burns 20 houses

Members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who entered and occupied at least seven villages in Pikit town, North Cotabato province, burned 20 houses in a rampage that is linked to its ongoing battle with a rival group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), police said.

SPO3 Norudin Solaiman, Pikit’s chief police investigator, said the attacks took place on Tuesday in Barongis, a village known to be populated by members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was not a party to the violence.

The BIFF, whose members are formerly with the MILF, has been battling MILF rebels under Jack Abas, the highest-ranking MILF leader in the area.

Solaiman said the burning of the houses could draw the MNLF into the fray. The MNLF signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.

More than 15,000 people have fled Barongis and the villages of Kabasalan, Buliok, Bago Inged, Bulol and Rajamuda. Hundreds more have evacuated in nearby Pagalungan town in Maguindanao for fear of getting caught in the cross fire in clashes that started last week.

Datukong Ampuan, also known as Commander Falcon of the MILF, and five of his followers, were killed.

The BIFF said it would step up attacks in North Cotabato, accusing Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza of funding the MILF operation against them.

Abu Misri Mama, BIFF spokesperson, said Mendoza had given funds to Abas to attack BIFF.

“Lala (Mendoza) uses her power and money to bribe the MILF and drive us out of our territory. The governor used thousands of pesos to earn the loyalty of the MILF,” he said.

“The local MILF units are now taking direct orders from her,” Mama said.

He said the BIFF would seize any chance to attack North Cotabato towns or the provincial capitol in Barangay (village) Amas in Kidapawan City.

“If we will have the chance, we will not only raid the town or city halls, but we will also attack the provincial capitol,” Mama said.

Mendoza denied the BIFF allegations, saying she is not in a position to command or even influence MILF.

“Am I a commander?” Mendoza said.

She said the BIFF was putting malice in her delivery of government programs to communities that include villages with heavy MILF presence.

The governor said she had delivered livelihood projects, electrification programs, classrooms, roads, water projects and aid for evacuees.

She added, however, that the programs were being carried out in the entire province and not only in areas populated by MILF members or their families.

Von Al Haq, MILF vice chair for military affairs, also denied that the governor was behind the MILF offensives against the BIFF.

“This is a legit operation being conducted by the MILF,” Al Haq said.

Philippines Skeptical of China’s Reclamation Work in Contested Sea

From the Voice of America (Feb 18): Philippines Skeptical of China’s Reclamation Work in Contested Sea

FILE - In this photo taken by surveillance planes and released May 15, 2014 by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese vessel, top center, is used to expand structures and land on the Johnson Reef at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Philippines.

FILE - In this photo taken by surveillance planes and released May 15, 2014 by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese vessel, top center, is used to expand structures and land on the Johnson Reef at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Philippines.

The Philippines is expressing “serious concern” over newly released satellite images that show major progress in China’s reclamation work at contested outcroppings in the South China Sea.

The latest images published by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly show “a large facility” in the works at Johnson South Reef. In May 2014, the Philippine military reported a Chinese construction ship was moving sand and rocks to augment the reef.
Click to enlarge

The latest images also show, from the start of construction at Gaven Reefs last March through this January, what appears to be a helipad and anti-aircraft tower. The report says the work at Gaven has “almost identical footprints” to the reclamation activities at nearby Hughes Reef, which is claimed by Vietnam.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Charles Jose says the country is “seriously concerned” about China’s reclamation work.

“And we have noted that China’s construction [on] these features is plainly intended to change the character, the status and maritime entitlements of these features," he explained. "And we have strongly urged China to desist from the reclamation work that they’re doing.”

Manila has filed multiple protests with Beijing over China’s reclamation work at several outcroppings the Philippines claims among the Spratly Islands. Jose said China’s response to the last submitted Johnson South Reef protest was that it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea’s islands.

This has been China’s position regarding any of its actions on or around the disputed rocks and banks. Furthermore, China’s Foreign Ministry has said the country has the right to engage in construction activities at its occupied islands. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan all have claims in the heavily traveled, resource-rich sea.

In the Spratlys, Vietnam and Taiwan have developed some smaller naturally formed islands with heavily fortified military infrastructure. Malaysia built a dive resort around a landing strip at one of its occupied outcroppings and the Philippines has pushed for civilian inhabitants on its largest island claims.

But Jane’s Defense Asia-Pacific editor James Hardy says China, which previously had not occupied any actual island there, is turning reefs into artificial islands. He says the features China is developing into islands “form a chain” across the Spratlys.

But they’re still very capable and they’re going to be fortified and they’re going to basically give them a position to assert their sovereignty claims to the other bits of the Spratly Islands," he said. "That’s the issue. It’s all about coercion, really. I think that’s what we think is going to happen. They don’t necessarily have to start a war. They just have to make it very difficult for anyone else to be there.”

Photos from Jane’s and Philippine and Chinese government sources show China is so far creating artificial islands at Cuateron, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes and Johnson South Reefs. Vietnam claims all of them, while the Philippines claims all but Hughes.

Philippines places emphasis on drones’ search and rescue, not military, capabilities

From the Business World (Feb 18): Philippines places emphasis on drones’ search and rescue, not military, capabilities

THE PHILIPPINES is more interested in harnessing the humanitarian, not military, potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones, an armed forces official said on Wednesday.
While drones will give the country’s military “an edge in information gathering and in armed confrontations,” the interest in using them is primarily rooted in their potential for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Spokesperson Harold M. Cabunoc said.
Mr. Cabunoc made these remarks after he said that the country is expected to benefit from the policy change by the Obama administration to allow the widespread export and sale of drones to its allies including the Philippines.

For his part, Department of National Defense Public Affairs Service Chief Arsenio R. Andolong also confirmed that the military’s consideration for acquiring drones is mostly for its HADR operations.

“In general, drones will certainly enhance any country’s defense posture. In our case, however, their potential contribution to HADR is probably more important,” Mr. Andolong said in a text message.

“Our planners would first have to assess the technology’s efficiency and the effectiveness vis-à-vis our capabilities.”

The military has been secretive about the use of drones in its operations despite reports that these have already been used in missions.

The use of drones are “operational matters” and hence cannot be disclosed to the public, Philippine Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Noel J. Detoyato said.

Despite the secrecy, the military has displayed its unmanned aerial systems in Camp Aguinaldo in 2013 and has even published bid invitations for the acquisition of UAVs.

The US government on Tuesday established a policy for exports of military and commercial drones, including armed ones, and said it plans to work with other countries to shape global standards for the use of these systems.

The State Department said it would allow exports of lethal US military drones under strict conditions, saying that sales must be made through government programs and that recipient nations must agree to certain “end-use” assurances.

VIDEO | No security threat in Metro Manila, says AFP

From InterAksyon (Feb 19): VIDEO | No security threat in Metro Manila, says AFP

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Wednesday denied that there is a threat to security in Metro Manila.

Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, spokesperson of the AFP, made the announcement after text messages were circulated recently, purportedly warning of a bomb plot that will occur in crowded places in Quezon City, Pasig, Taguig and Makati.

He said the text messages did not originate from the AFP.

Cabunoc said it is not the habit of the military to give out information that has not yet been confirmed, and therefore there is no cause for alarm.

[Video report]

Rebels in viral Mamasapano video likely BIFF – NBI

From Rappler (Feb 19): Rebels in viral Mamasapano video likely BIFF – NBI

The National Bureau of Investigation continues to track the original uploader of the gruesome video

'OVERKILL.' Screenshots from the video showing the aftermath of the Mamasapano clash, where police commandos murdered in what the PNP OIC calls an 'overkill.'

'OVERKILL.' Screenshots from the video showing the aftermath of the Mamasapano clash, where police commandos murdered in what the PNP OIC calls an 'overkill.'
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) said that the unidentified men shooting an elite policeman in the face, as seen in a gruesome viral video, "might be" members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
This was based on information the NBI got from the person they believe was the first to upload it online, as the agency continues to probe where the video came from.

The video, which the NBI certified as authentic, showed a man sprawled on a cornfield in a camouflage uniform being shot twice at close range.

The victim was later identified by relatives as PO1 Joseph Sagonoy, one of the 44 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (SAF) men killed in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

The SAF commandos were in Mamasapano to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman. Marwan was killed in the raid, while Usman remains at large.

An NBI source said they were able to get at least 3 names whom they believe are the source of the video. A certain "Yangyang,” believed to be the first person to upload the video on Facebook. gave the names.

Yangyang, who surrendered to the NBI in Davao City, said that he did not take the video.

The 3 people suspected of taking the video are believed to be in Pikit, North Cotabato, which the NBI said was a stronghold of the BIFF. The source said the NBI now has to decide whether or not to pursue the suspects, due to security concerns in the area where they live.

While he wasn't the original uploader, Yangyang said he downloaded the Mamasapano video from a friend's Facebook account and then uploaded it to his account through his mobile phone. He siad he uploaded the video "in good faith" to show how the SAF men were "mercilessly killed."

The NBI continues to track the original uploader of the video. (READ: Human rights body: Help identify who posted Mamasapano video)

Yangyang has since taken down the Mamasapano video and deactivated his Facebook page after receiving heat online for the post, and is worried that he could have potentially placed his family in danger.

Yangyang, who was brought to Manila Wednesday, February 18, from Davao, promised full cooperation with authorities in tracking down the source of the video.

Lorenzo said whoever uploaded the video could be charged with "obscene publication."

Earlier, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Commission on Human Rights urged the public not to share the video that has gone viral.

Malacañang called the person who uploaded the video "heartless," while Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Mohagher Iqbal said the executioner in the video was worse than a terrorist. "These are monsters, not people," he told senators on Thursday, February 12.

Gov’t, MILF must do more to regain trust - IMT

From Rappler (Feb 19): Gov’t, MILF must do more to regain trust - IMT

Foreigners monitoring the peace process between the government and the MILF say the return of the SAF weapons is a first good step

PEACE MONITORS. Maj. Gen. Dato Abdul Samad Bin HJ Yaakub, head of the International Monitoring Team, briefs Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. (left) about the weapons returned by MILF on February 18. File photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler

PEACE MONITORS. Maj. Gen. Dato Abdul Samad Bin HJ Yaakub, head of the International Monitoring Team, briefs Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. (left) about the weapons returned by MILF on February 18. File photo by Jeoffrey Maitem/Rappler
Peace monitors under the International Monitoring Team (IMT) said the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) need to do more confidence-building measures to regain public trust in the peace process.
Maj. Gen. Dato Abdul Samad Bin HJ Yaakub, head of IMT, noted that while both peace panels are sincere in seeking genuine peace in Mindanao, they need to exert efforts to regain public trust following the January 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, involving MILF rebels, breakaway groups, and the police Special Action Force (SAF).
The IMT is an independent Malaysian-led group that monitors the agreements of both sides concerning ceasefire, rehabilitation, and development. It is composed of at least 55 members; the Malaysians oversee the security component of the team's mandate. Other IMT members include Libya, Brunei and Japan.
Yaakub and other members of the IMT witnessed the turnover ceremony of weapons taken by the MILF’s 105th Base Command from the SAF commandos who attacked Mamasapano to arrest terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir (or Marwan) and Abdul Basit Usman. Marwan was killed in the operation that also caused the death of 44 SAF troopers, 18 Moro rebels and at least 3 civilians. (READ: Timeline Mamasapano clash)
The MILF returned 16 SAF weapons to the government peace panel on Wednesday, February 18, at Camp Siongco, headquarters of the military’s 6th Division in Datu Odin Sinsuat town. A total of 63 firearms were lost during the Mamasapano operation, according to a police report.
“On behalf of IMT, we are honored [to witness one] of the historical events in the peace process. Since the tragic events in Mamasapano, the IMT with the rest of mechanism worked hard to minimize the effect of the tragedy,” Yaakub said.
“We realize that both parties are true to their word. They want peace. Confidence- building measures are one of the ways to gain back the trust of the Filipino public. It happened today,” he added.
The Malaysian officer said they hope both sides will do more in the near future.
“To the military, we salute you for your professionalism and your stabilizing factor of the current situation,” Yaakub added.
Heal wounds
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles thanked the IMT for its significant role in "installing the ceasefire" even as she asked all sides to "work to heal the wounds to move forward."
She acknowledged that the Mamasapano carnage has been the biggest challenge to the process, whose highlight was the peace agreement signed by both sides last year.
The clash is the PNP's worst operation in its young history, and it now threatens to ruin the peace legacy of the Aquino administration.
Congressional hearings on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, which President Benigno Aquino III hoped would pass early this year, have been suspended. 
Aquino earlier asked the MILF to show good faith in the process by returning the weapons to SAF and arresting Usman.
The government and MILF peace panels then held backchannel talks that culminated in the return of the weapons.
Senator Ralph Recto however said the MILF should also return the personal belongings of the SAF commandos, saying "these can never be spoils of war nor trophies of battles."

PNP-AFP rift? 'We are one, we will overcome'

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 19): PNP-AFP rift? 'We are one, we will overcome'

Police and military generals downplay any perceived rift between the two forces in the aftermath of a police operation that left 44 elite cops dead

BROTHERS. AFP and PNP officials links arms during a ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo on February 19, 2015. Photo by Bea Cupin/Rappler

BROTHERS. AFP and PNP officials links arms during a ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo on February 19, 2015. Photo by Bea Cupin/Rappler
Even before any official spoke about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the 16 firearms surrendered by the rebel group, or of a bloody encounter in Mamasapano town that claimed the lives of 44 elite cops, police and military officials on Thursday, February 19, linked arms as a show of the two forces’ good relationship.
“The AFP and the PNP are solidly working together for the benefit of everyone in this country,” AFP spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla Jr. said at the beginning of the ceremonies in Camp Aguinaldo.

Padilla then asked police and military generals and colonels to link arms as they presented 16 firearms returned by the MILF through the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

Mistahs of PMA '81 and the Mamasapano tragedy
“We are one, we are strong and we will overcome,” added AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr.

Things are – or at least perceived to be – shaky between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (PNP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) after “Oplan Exodus,” a January 25 PNP Special Action Force (SAF) operation to neutralize Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as “Marwan,” and Abdul Basit Usman.

The cops were able to kill Marwan, but Usman escaped.

In the operation, SAF troopers were trapped in a firefight with MILF and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Forty four of the 73 troopers who entered the area never came out alive.

“Oplan Exodus” was a top-secret operation that saw the acting PNP chief, the Interior Secretary and even the military out of the loop. Local military forces did not know of the SAF’s operation until after cops entered Mamasapano. (READ: Despite Mamasapano clash, 'all okay in PNP' – acting chief)

SAF officials, citing previous bad experiences in joint operations with the AFP, decided to only inform the military “time on target,” or only after troopers had entered Mamasapano. (READ: Why SAF didn't trust military)

As a result, soldiers were unable to send help on time, since they were left unsure of where the elite policemen were and what exactly was going on inside Mamasapano.

Both AFP and PNP personnel have expressed their dismay over each other.
The PNP, for the AFP’s failure to send help for beleaguered SAF troopers in time and the AFP, for the PNP SAF’s failure to coordinate with local military forces. (READ: Mamasapano: What ifs and what could have beens)

The AFP and PNP’s ties go beyond that of being the country’s internal and external security forces. Most of the two forces’ top officials were once classmates in the Philippine Military Academy. The PNP traces its roots to the Philippine Constabulary, which was once part of the AFP.

No feud here

During the Senate’s probe into the operation, senators pounded on the AFP for their perceived failure to help beleaguered SAF troopers. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano accused the AFP of “sacrificing” the 44 SAF troopers to “save” the ongoing peace process between the government and the MILF.

Catapang denied Cayetano’s assertion, insisting the AFP did not have enough time, nor did it have enough information to act accordingly. (READ: AFP unaware of 2nd SAF team)

TIMELINE: Mamasapano clash
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, whom one senator had characterized as among the “calmer” voices in the issue, turned emotional before the Senate as he questioned why it took the AFP so long to send help.

The week before legislative probes began, relieved SAF commander Police Director Getulio Napeñas figured in a word war with Catapang, offering a narrative contrary to that of his PMA upperclassman during a press conference held hours after Catapang’s own media briefing. (READ: AFP clears troops of liability in Mamasapano)

PNP Office-in-Charge Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, Catapang’s mistah (classmate) from the PMA class of 1981, on the same day emphasized there was no feuding between the AFP and the PNP.
Baka lang hindi nagkaintindihan, some elements on the ground between AFP and PNP. Kung puwede sana, baka puwedeng sinasabing AFP-PNP differences ay ma-refer lang doon,” Espina had told reporters after a Senate hearing on February 10.

(Maybe some elements of the AFP and PNP on the ground had misunderstandings. If it’s possible, let’s limit the discussion of AFP and PNP differences to them.)

Both the PNP and AFP, on separate occasions, have emphasized their commitment to the peace process.

Both forces also have the same message for the MILF: while the return of the 16 firearms was a “welcome development,” the MILF still has much to do to restore the trust not only of the PNP and AFP, but of the public.

Police to tighten security for Palparan trial

From InterAksyon (Feb 19): Police to tighten security for Palparan trial

Former military general Jovito Palparan's wanted poster. FILE PHOTO

Security is expected to be tightened anew on Monday as the trial of the kidnapping with serious illegal detention case against retired Army Major General Jovito Palparan began to sizzle following the appearance in court of an alleged eyewitness who personally identified the controversial military officer as behind the abduction of UP students Karen Empeño at Shierlyn Cadapan.

Bulacan police director Senior Supt. Ferdinand Divina said the premises of Bulacan Regional Trial Court (RTC) will be secured due to the intensity generated by the trial of Palparan and three other military officials.

Last Monday, fire trucks were used as barricade to prevent both militant groups and pro-Palparan supporters from getting near the Bulacan RTC. The court scheduled the next hearing on February 23.

“We want the safety of everyone and we want the case to push through without any untoward incident,” Divina said, adding that aside from the security detail of Palparan from his detention cell in Fort Bonificaio, the Bulacan police is also deploying anti-riot policemen and members of the Bulacan police-Special Weapons and Tacticts Unit.

Wearing Kevlar helmet and bullet-proof vest and surrounded by heavily armed security personnel, Palparan arrived last Monday at the sala of Bulacan RTC Branch 14 Judge Teodora Gonzales, together with his co-accused Lt.Col. Felipe Anotado and M/Sgt. Edgardo Osorio.

Torture witness

At Monday’s hearing, prosecution eyewitness Raymond Manalo testified that during his own detention, he saw Palparan three times.

He said he was lucky he escaped; he did not elaborate how he escaped.
Manalo claimed he saw the two missing UP students being tortured while tied naked.

Palparan’s lawyer Narzal Mallares shrugged off Manalo’s testimony, saying that everybody knew his client because he is popular.

He said that the accusers must prove their claims during cross examination.

Meanwhile, members of militant groups said they believe the two missing UP students are still alive.

As Palparan was being whisked away for his return journey to Fort Bonifacio after the hearing, some of the militant protesters shouted, “Executioner, release the students whom you abducted."

'BIGGER, MORE AMBITIOUS' | China to project power from artificial islands in disputed territory

From InterAksyon (Feb 19): 'BIGGER, MORE AMBITIOUS' | China to project power from artificial islands in disputed territory

South China Sea map

China's creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea is happening so fast that Beijing will be able to extend the range of its navy, air force, coastguard and fishing fleets before long, much to the alarm of rival claimants to the contested waters.

Reclamation work is well advanced on six reefs in the Spratly archipelago, according to recently published satellite photographs and Philippine officials. In addition, Manila said this month that Chinese dredgers had started reclaiming a seventh.

While the new islands won't overturn U.S. military superiority in the region, Chinese workers are building ports and fuel storage depots as well as possibly two airstrips that experts said would allow Beijing to project power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

"These reclamations are bigger and more ambitious than we all thought," said one Western diplomat. "On many different levels it's going to be exceptionally difficult to counter China in the South China Sea as this develops."

China claims most of the potentially energy rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

All but Brunei have fortified bases in the Spratlys, which lie roughly 1,300 km (810 miles) from the Chinese mainland but much closer to the Southeast Asian claimants.

Beijing has rejected diplomatic protests by Manila and Hanoi and criticism from Washington over the reclamation, saying the work falls "within the scope of China's sovereignty".

The Philippines began expressing growing concern in mid-2014, in particular, accusing Beijing of building an airstrip on Johnson South Reef.

Satellite analysis published by IHS Jane's Defence Weekly this week showed a new installation being built on Hughes Reef. It described a "large facility" having been constructed on 75,000 square metres of sand reclaimed since August.

It also published images of Fiery Cross Reef, which now includes a reclaimed island more than 3 km (1.8 miles) long that experts said would likely become a runway.

Work is also well established on Gaven, Cuarteron and Eldad Reefs, with the new dredging taking place on Mischief Reef.


While the prospect of China using the artificial islands to refuel warplanes in any conflict was a possibility, some experts highlighted significant non-military benefits.

China could keep its fishing fleets and coastguard working in Southeast Asia more effectively, with crews able to re-supply and rest, said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at Canberra's Australian Defence Force Academy. Oil explorers would similarly benefit.

Reuters reported in July that Chinese authorities were encouraging fishermen to sail to the Spratlys, often providing fuel subsidies to help.

Before the reclamation, China's facilities were limited to squat buildings and radar domes built on rocky outcrops, with limited berthing and storage facilities, a contrast to natural islands occupied by Taiwan and the Philippines.

"Even before you factor in military questions, the expansion of Chinese fishing and coastguard fleets is going to be a strategic shift that is going to be very hard for anyone to counter," said Thayer.

"And then you will have the navy just over the horizon."

Thayer noted that while no legal claim could be extended from an artificial island, China would effectively move to force rival countries from the surrounding seas.

Chinese strategic analysts said the build-up was being driven by what Beijing sees as security threats, especially the need to check Vietnam, which has had up until now the most holdings in the Spratlys, with 25 bases on shoals and reefs. Vietnam is also quietly building up its submarine fleet to counter China.

The two Communist Party-ruled neighbours clashed at sea in 1988 when China took its first Spratly holdings, including Fiery Cross Reef, from Vietnam.

Some regional military attaches believe China may eventually use helicopter facilities on the new islands to run anti-submarine operations.

"This is less about politics and legal issues and more about security, from China's perspective," said Zhang Baohui, a mainland defence specialist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.


Gary Li, an independent security analyst in Beijing, said he believed any military pay-off would be relatively small from the new islands, given their distance from the Chinese mainland.

"I suspect these reclamations would only ever have localised tactical uses in military terms," Li said.

China's lack of offshore military bases and friendly ports to call on was apparent last year when Chinese naval supply vessels sailed to Australia to replenish warships helping look for a missing Malaysian airliner in the Indian Ocean.

Naval planners know they will have to fill this strategic gap to meet Beijing's desire for a fully operational blue-water navy by 2050.

More immediately, some analysts said they believed the islands would give China the reach to create and police an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) above the South China Sea.

China sparked condemnation from Japan and the United States when it imposed an ADIZ, where aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities, above the EastChina Sea in late 2013. China has denied speculation it would follow suit in the South China Sea.

Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser, predicted China would complete its reclamation work by early next year and announce an ADIZ within three years.

"They are connecting the dots. They're putting real muscle into this," Golez said.

Army declares Leyte town as insurgency-free

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 19): Army declares Leyte town as insurgency-free

The local government of Palompon, Leyte and the Philippine Army jointly declared the town as insurgency-free Wednesday.

The declaration was based on the absence of insurgency threats in the town for several years, citing military’s intelligence assessment.

The town, which hosts the tourist haven Kalanggaman Island, has been insurgency-free when two of its remote villages were cleared from influence of communist rebels in 2003.

Lt. Col. Nedy Espulgar recounted that the town met the imperatives stipulated in the National Internal Security Plan (NISP) in terms of communist movement that made peace and order stabilized.

Mayor Ramon Oñate and 802nd Brigade Commander Col. Dinoh Dolina signed the declaration witnessed by Col. Nedy Espulgar, battalion commander of the Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion based in Kananga town; Chief Insp. Hipolito Delima, town police chief; and other local officials.

The signing of the declaration was contained in the Municipal Resolution No. 230-020215 passed by the office of the local council.

The recent declaration brought down to 25 Leyte towns and cities targeted by the 802nd IB for insurgency-free declaration.

“We hope that all other towns and cities within our area of operations will soon be declared insurgency-free before this semester ends. Intensified engagement is underway so that other local government units through its peace and order council may initiate same effort,” Espulgar said.

Palompon is now the third town in Leyte to be tagged insurgency-free next to Merida on Sept. 4 and Matag-ob on June 12 last year.

Despite Palompon’s “cleared” status, the military will still be backing the local government unit with the Philippine National Police in its peace and development initiatives.

In his message, Col. Dolina, explained the impact of declaring Palompon as insurgency-free to the local economy as well as to the constituents considering its high potential for growth and development.

On the other hand, Oñate is confident that with such declaration, peace and tranquility in Palompon will flourish and further increase confidence from the business sector.

Army urged government agencies to help sustain rebel-free status in Leyte

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 19): Army urged government agencies to help sustain rebel-free status in Leyte

The Philippine Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion (IB) urged government agencies to sustain development efforts of Leyte towns declared as rebel-free.

Lt. Col. Nedy Espulgar, 19th IB commander said insurgency free status has already been declared in the towns of Merida, Matag-ob and Palompon.

Espulgar said that while these towns have been relatively peaceful, the root cause of insurgency must be addressed by the government to ensure that these areas maintain its status.

“The government should work closely with the town and provincial planning and development offices and other line agencies for programs that would help the locality remain insurgency-free.

Col. DinohDolina, commander of the Army’s 802nd Infantry Brigade, 19th IB’s mother unit said that peace and security is a complex issue that involves the implementation of "firm policies and it requires help from all stakeholders in the community.”

Top army and local government officials in the province gathered Wednesday in Palompon town to jointly declare the area as insurgency-free.

Phil. Army 56th IB's service caravan benefits Aurorans

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 19): Phil. Army 56th IB's service caravan benefits Aurorans
MARIA AURORA, Aurora -- Hundreds of residents from three villages here have benefited from a whole day service caravan of the Philippine Army’s (PA’s) 56th Infantry Battalion.

Lt. Joey Escanillas, 56thIB commander, said on Thursday the services they rendered include free haircut, medical and dental mission for the people of Barangays Dianawan, Punglo and Bazal.

Besides actual service, Escanillas said the caravan also aimed at winning the hearts of the people and “poster harmony among us.”

“We are working for lasting peace for our people,” he said.

He said that similar activities are set to be conducted in other places within their area of responsibility in this province.

Armed men burned vehicle, shot dead mining guard in Surigao del Sur

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 19): Armed men burned vehicle, shot dead mining guard in Surigao del Sur

A security and monitoring personnel of a mining firm was shot dead after a vehicle was burned by an armed group at a coastal town of a southern province in the region, Wednesday morning.

Reports from Surigao del Sur Provincial Police reaching the regional headquarters here on Thursday said that a certain Jasmine P. Ontua, 50; a resident of Purok 6, Guinhalinan, Barobo town in Surigao del Sur reported to Barobo Municipal Police Station that her husband Anie M. Ontua, alias "Loloy" 35; employee of Philsaga Mining Corporation as monitoring and security personnel was shot dead by about 10 heavily armed men believed to be members of the rebel group under the New People's Army Guerilla Front Committee 14 led by an alias "Jemboy."

Barobo Police immediately proceeded to the crime scene to conduct investigation of the incident in coordination with the 131st Regional Public Safety Company based in Cutlog, of the said town, the 75th Infantry Battalion Philippine Army based in Scaling, Bislig City and DOLE, Guinhalinan, Barobo, all of Surigao del Sur, at 6:50 a.m. on Wednesday.

Police investigators disclosed that about 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Ontua's wife Jasmine, told them that the armed men arrived in their house and introduced themselves as NPAs. The suspects accordingly dragged the victim behind their house after tying his hands with a rope and stuffing his mouth with a piece of cloth.

Mrs. Ontua said the suspects took a chainsaw which they found in the place and took her cellular phone and pushed the victim inside the Elf truck owned by a certain Cesar Ontua which was parked nearby. As the suspects left with the victim with them on board the truck, they left a word to the wife in Visayan dialect "Ayaw lang ug kabalaka kay amoa rang estoryahon ang imong bana," (Don't worry, we'll just have conversation with your husband). The armed men then ordered the driver Enrico Campohan to proceed towards to a road in Brgy. Guinhalinan, and minutes later, several gunshots were heard coming from the direction of the location of the Elf truck.

Sometime thereafter, the driver of the Elf truck went back to the place where the victim's wife was and told her that he was commanded by the suspects to disembark from the vehicle and to leave the place. The driver told the wife that he saw one of the suspects fire at the tank of the vehicle before he left the place of incident. The wife of the victim reported the incident to the police who immediately proceeded to the crime scene and found the dead body of the victim with gunshot wounds on various parts of his body about 5 meters away from the burned Elf truck.

Recovered by the responding policemen at the crime scene were three spent shells of Caliber .45 pistol and three spent shells of a shot gun. The evidences were brought to Barobo Police Station for proper disposition.

The cadaver of the victim was brought to a funeral home in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur.

A thorough investigation of the incident is now being conducted by the Barobo police.