Rescue Operations: Counter-insurgency ploy?

Jul. 12, 2009

By Media Mindanao News Service

News Digest Volume 1, August 1987-July 1988 Posted by Davao Today

MARAWI CITY (MMNS/August 31, 1987) — Central Mindanao’s senior military officer Brig. Gen. Jesus Hermosa vowed during a press conference August 15 here to “wipe out” all kidnappers and bandits in Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte. “Next time, there will be no more negotiations,” he told reporters, civilian officials, newly released kidnap victims and their relatives.

The previous night, minutes after the 16 hostages crossed the lake to freedom, bombs rained in Mala Balt (literally, bigger island), an islet in Lake Lanao some 30 kms south from here, the shelter of both kidnappers and victims during the thick of negotiations.

A shower of missiles followed the next day, capped by an assault of the composite army and marine troopers on the island fortress — a bastion since World War II which was hastily remodelled after the EDSA revolt by a Marcos loyal fan, obviously in defense against the new administration of President Corazon Aquino.

Navigation in four lake towns was restricted. Troops fanned out to the jungles and press releases screamed — as loud as four jet fighters circling Mala Balt the day before — that the war to “wipe out all bandits” in the province has started.

“It looks like the military was tricked,” admitted Brig. Gen. Hermosa. The 11 bunkers, each large enough to contain 30 people, and the entire Mala Balt left scanty traces of the kidnappers led by Kumander Menor and Ustadz Taha who slipped out of the island an hour ahead of their victims.

Similarly, troops scouring the mainland province have yet to bump on the shadows of kidnappers who reliable sources claimed have disappeared in the forests and communities known to be bustling with automatic rifles both in the hands of rebels and civilians.

To strengthen the flow of police operations Hermosa ordered the relief of all Maranao field officers on suspicion of collaborating with kidnappers and their replacement by Christians. He identified one such “collaborator” as a Capt. Usman codenamed “Battallion” who was reportedly radioed by Menor before leaving the island.

Despite the consternation visibly etched on their foreheads, Hermosa and Lanao Sur governor Tarhata Lucman still smiled for having scored one victory — pressure tactics have worked. All the 16 hostages are intact and freed without paying any ransom and thanks to the civilian officials, religious leaders, school administrators, and the military.

Hermosa also revealed another name — Lt. Col. Carlos Pena, Lanao Sur PC commander — as a likely head to roll down in 30 days should he fail to apprehend the kidnappers.

Kumanders Menor and Taha went away empty handed and with the P20,000 initial price tag on their heads, to say it further. The military’s success in booking the two notorious kidnappers is needed to silence skeptics like Muslim religious leader Alim Salic Usman who earlier asked: “Why were Menor and Taha still roaming freely despite their past banditry cases?”

Usman’s barbs centered not only on the seeming tolerance police authorities accorded the kidnappers but also on “willingness of some people” to pay the ransom. Follow religious leaders, Mindanao State University (MSU) president Dr. Ahmed Alonto Jr and the media listened to Usman at the Conference hall, the same venue where Hermosa and Gov. Lucman days later were to utter the opposite.

That the military knew Menor, the kidnap artist, is hardly arguable since the former tagged the latter responsible for the abduction of five National Food Authority employees last year, and this year, nine Red Cross workers (including two Swiss nationals) in May, two Filipino United Nations workers and two high school teachers in July, the last-mentioned kidnapped during a flag ceremony.

That the mastermind’s face is familiar to some military officers is also implied. Menor himself collided with one of them in March — PC major Gumar Pangcatan and bodyguards who he divested of a vehicle, firearms and uniforms and sent home in underwears.

Sources in Marawi chuckled how the major, a Maranao, tried the bandit’s antics by taking hostage Menor’s mother and sister to get the lost items back. Only to be answered by Menor spiriting away his aunt and sister in return. The friction was settled nonetheless with the intervention of elders but some said Major Pangcatan, relieved after the incident, pulled off another trick weeks after in Manila International Airport when Menor was sealed off from a trip abroad and arrested. How he slipped out of jail and return to Lanao del Sur to reap more media blitzes is another story.

And reap did he of cash as well from his “pasttime,” insiders in MSU here admitted despite official denials. “Ransom was shelled out in all kidnap cases,” claimed an outsider Brother Solitario, MNLF head in Lanao del Norte two days before the 16 hostages were freed. His counterpart, Brother Mike Narra of Central Ranao added on the thick clout of kidnappers because of the moral, if not financial, backing from “former mayors and Marcos loyalists.”

Col. Raul Aquino, 2/1 Brigade chief and Lanao’s senior military officer, reported 134 persons were kidnapped from the time he came here in June last year until the same month this year. Twenty-two more names would be added in the roster including an 11-year old child.

All the victims were recovered sans ransom paid, except for one girl kidnapped in May who chose to live as wife to one of the kidnappers. Kidnappings in the two Lanaos, Col. Aquino would repeat, are “politically-motivated,” since kidnappers primarily seek publicity rather than cash. Seconded Dr. Alonto, MSU president: Actually, bandits would abandon their original ransom demands and settle for a refund of their expenses.”

Alonto did not mention how much “refund” were given for the release of 16 hostages in the recent mass kidnapping, 15 of whom were his constituents. Menor and Taha had auctioned them for P500,000 and later jacked it up to P62.5 million, a quarter of MSU total annual budget allocation.

But while celebration has barely begun with the release on August 17 of 16 hostages, armed men struck again in Iligan, 45 kms, northeast from here, abducting businesswoman Miguela Falcon, 51, wife of a government corporate executive, obviously challenging the fresh promises of Central Mindanao’s top brass to “wipe out” all kidnappers in the two Lanaos.

But Col. Aquino earlier saw one big hitch in the growing boldness of bandits because of the “unwillingness of victims to testify against the perpetrators,” apparently tossing away the question why the military “failed to apprehend any of them.” He further foresaw the explosive direction of the ongoing drive against the kidnappers. The two-battalion troops searching for the culprits might run into skirmishes with Muslim rebels who are reportedly scrambling to battle positions in response to the unusual “police action.” And thus ignite hostilities.

“It is difficult to run after bandits,” he admitted, “because despite denials, the kidnappers are known to be staying in MNLF and MILF camps.” Nevertheless, he hinted that such political tussle would lapse after August 28, the expiration of the national amnesty and reconciliation program which has been extended to February 28 next year.

He made it clear by warning all insurgents “especially Muslim rebels” of an all-out offensive should they refuse to lay down arms after August 28. With his troops already spread out in Lanao del Sur in the anti-bandit chase, the hand that holds the trigger, so to speak, is more than prepared when the clock signals for them to begin hitting harder on rebels as Col. Aquino so warned. (Media Mindanao News Service News Digest Volume 1, August 1987-July 1988 Posted by Davao Today)

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