• Palace intervention urged in North Cotabato standoff

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    COTABATO CITY: A local government official is urging the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) to settle the hostile standoff between some forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Barangay Marbel, Matalam, North Cotabato.

    The MNLF-MILF standoff has continuously deferred the opening of classes of schools in the village.

    Outgoing Vice Mayor Muslimin Sema of Cotabato City, the most senior MNLF official based in Central Mindanao, on Tuesday called on OPAPP to investigate the security problem and ongoing tension in Barangay Marbel, a government-recognized “peace zone.”

    Sema made the move after schools within the enclave of the MNLF in Matalam remained closed after the MNLF engaged in hostilities with MILF last month and there are continuing threats to the peace and order in the village.

    The troubled farming communities in Barangay Marbel in Matalam are supposedly covered by the September 2, 1996 Final Peace Agreement signed between the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and the MNLF under Chairman Nur Misuari.

    Local officials have accused the MILF of reneging on a low level truce with the MNLF on May 23, which the provincial government of North Cotabato helped broker to restore peace and normalcy in the area.

    Hostilities in Barangay Marbel began before the May 13 elections when local villagers prevented MILF guerillas from attending a local peace forum with their guns.

    Datu Dima Ambil, MNLF’s most senior leader in Matalam, said the rule was imposed in compliance with the election gun ban and to stem panic among residents of Barangay Marbel.

    “We did not oppose their participation in that forum. We just wanted them to attend that activity without guns,” said Ambil, chairman of the MNLF’s North Cotabato state revolutionary committee.

    North Cotabato officials said 5,634 villagers were forced to abandon their homes when defiant MILF forces engaged MNLF members in firefights that prompted the provincial police and the Army’s 602nd Brigade to deploy peacekeeping contingents in the area.

    As this developed, Sema said MNLF members in the area are so vulnerable since many of them have either sold their firearms to generate additional capital for farming or traded the weapons with farm animals to boost their livelihood on agriculture.

    Evacuees have confirmed that MILF forces who came from nearby towns encamped around Barangay Marbel last month that members of the local MNLF group were forced to use their 60mm mortars to prevent them from closing in.

    Beleaguered MNLF members also pounded with mortars strategic spots around Barangay Marbel after MILF rebels allegedly occupied abandoned houses and established checkpoints to prevent the return of displaced residents.

    “The truth must be unraveled. The MNLF community there is covered by the September 2, 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the government and the MNLF,” Sema said.

    Sema said they are for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Marbel, with the intervention of OPAPP, to enable villagers to return and for education officials to re-open all schools in the area.

    Local community leaders also said that, MILF gunmen from outside keep coming back, in total disregard of the interim truce initiated by the office of Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza of North Cotabato.

    Meanwhile, Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the military gave local authorities enough time to peacefully resolve the conflict before the 602nd Brigade responded to the clamor by evacuees for the deployment of a peacekeeping contingent in Barangay Marbel.

    Both Sema and Ambil said the MNLF is “not closing its doors” to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

    “Our main concern, for now, is how to restore normalcy in the area for children of MNLF members there to return to their schools. Classes failed to resume last Monday and there is no guarantee the schools there can re-open soon,” Sema emphasized.

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