THE rescue efforts of the military to free two soldiers from the clutches of the Maoist rebels will go on despite calls by church leaders and peace advocates to suspend the combat operations in some parts of northern Mindanao, a top military official said Thursday.
“We will continue with the rescue operation,” said Major General Oscar Lactao, Philippine Army’s 4th Infantry Division (4ID) commanding general.
The military aims at rescuing Privates First Class Marnel Cinches and Jerrel Yorong, of the 4ID’s 8th Infantry Battalion, who were captured by the New People’s Army in Impasug-ong, Bukidnon on August 22.
Lactao said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) could not declare a suspension of military operation (Somo), to ensure the smooth turnover of the captured soldiers, as it is a “political decision.”
He said the civilian sector including religious leaders, local government officials, and even the media could negotiate for cessation of hostilities between the military and the NPA.
“We are instruments of power of our political leaders,” he said, and declaring the Somo is not for the military to make.
He said there is really no need to implement a Somo since there is a simpler way to facilitate the freedom of the two soldiers, who were not in combat when they were held at gunpoint by members of the NPA on their way to the market.
The two are members of an army team that conducts a community outreach program in some villages in Impasug-ong.
Lactao added the 4ID does not call the two as prisoners of war considering that they were not engaged in an armed confrontation at the time of their capture.
What the NPA should do instead, Lactao added, is to leave Cinches and Yorong in a hinterland village and then inform the peace negotiators where to find them.
The request for the Somo, mainly brokered by Iglesia Filipina Independiente Bishop Felixberto Calang and Roman Catholic Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, is still one of the issues that have yet to be resolved by both the NPA and the AFP.
Aside from the Somo, the NPA also wanted a pullout of the troops in areas where the release of the captives could take place.
But in his October 30, 2014 letter to Bukidnon Governor Jose Maria Zubiri, 403rd Infantry Brigade chief Colonel Jesse Alvarez said the military will only order a “stand down” of its forces on the ground and not a pullout that will take effect for only three days.
After demanding for a 10-day Somo, the NPA said they would settle for a seven-day truce to give their “custodial force” enough time to safely deliver Cinches and Yorong to a secured location.
Alvarez cited Zubiri as saying during a recent meeting with peace negotiators and the Bukidnon crisis committee, of which Zubiri heads, that the NPA has identified the areas covered under Somo, namely, Cabanglasan, San Fernando, Malaybalay City, Impasug-ong, Malitbog and Manolo Fortich, all of Bukidnon; and Claveria, Balingasag and Gingoog City, all of Misamis Oriental.
In its November 5 letter to Zubiri, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), through its spokesperson Cesar Renerio, responded by insisting on the enforcement of Somo.
“We suggest that a categorical [Somo] will be ordered instead. In fact, our troops in the field are anticipating the AFP’s [Somo] order in reference to the commitment of (National Defense) Sec. (Voltaire) Gazmin to the Bishops of the Third Party Facilitators,” the letter said.
“We assume that [Somo] as a matter of established procedure in the AFP is the withdrawal of operating troops from the area and are ordered back to camp,” it said.
The NDFP added that if government soldiers will remain within the specified areas covered by Somo, “there is high possibility that armed engagements may erupt unnecessarily between NPA troops and the AFP-CAFGU and AFP-directed lumad paramilitary group that may jeopardize the release process.”
“We hope that the GPH (government) that you (Zubiri) represent will recognize this goodwill gesture of peace offering in the release of [Cinches and Yorong] and help pave the way for the resumption of peace talks between the GPH and the NDFP,” it added.
No collateral damage
For his part, Lactao said that in the continuing combat operations of the 4ID troops to locate and rescue the captives, the military is doing its best not to cause any collateral damage.
He said this new approach by the military to target only armed rebels and spare civilians is part of its Internal Peace and Security Plan or “Bayanihan.”
He added this rule of engagement of not firing first unless fired upon had already claimed a few soldiers’ lives since they have to wait for the NPA to shoot first before responding.
Lactao said this is the reason why soldiers have to be re-trained in combat and discipline for them to respond promptly.