Philippine security forces arrested and disarmed 38 ex-Muslim rebels at a checkpoint in the southern Philippines as the gunmen were on their way to prevent the arrest of a comrade accused of involvement in a deadly shooting last week, officials said Wednesday.
The men, who were aboard a truck, were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) 118 Von Basher Unit based in Maguindanao province. They were stopped while trying to pass through Talakag, a town in nearby Bukidnon province on Monday, police said.
“Those apprehended were allegedly the reinforcement for their companion … who figured in a shooting incident recently,” Col. Roel Lami-ing, Bukidnon’s provincial police chief, told reporters.
Lami-ing was referring to a Feb. 21 incident in Talakag, in which a local MILF member allegedly gunned down a civilian over a land dispute. MILF members, however, had refused to hand the suspect over to the authorities, he said.
Capt. Dominador Orate, the Talakag police chief, said his men confiscated assault rifles, a grenade, magazine clips, ammunition, a two-way radio and identification cards from the former guerrillas under Commander Abdulbasser Sulaiman Tahir. They did not resist arrest when they were flagged down, he said.
“Seeing a truckload of armed men raised suspicion as it is a rare sight here. So, we flagged down the truck and inspected them one by one,” Orate told reporters.
The arrested gunmen were later turned over to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, he said.
The incident came days after the MILF leadership started the second phase of the decommissioning process, in which 3,100 former insurgents were expected to turn over almost 600 firearms to the government.
The phased handover of weapons by the former rebel force – which counts up to 40,000 fighters by its own estimates – is part of a peace deal between the rebel group and Manila that led to the establishment in February 2019 of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which MILF governs.
The decommissioned firearms are to be kept by a group made up of government officials. According to the peace agreement, each combatant who hands over his weapons will receive a cash payment, including money for education.
The MILF’s 118 Von Basher Unit is the same group that engaged government forces in a firefight that left 44 police commandos dead in January 2015.
The target of that police operation was Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorist at the time, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir (also known as Marwan). He was killed during the raid, but the Special Action Force commandos subsequently became locked in a firefight with MILF forces as they tried to leave the area.
In congressional hearings that occurred weeks later, it was established that the raid was top secret and known only to a handful of officers, despite an earlier agreement that the government must first coordinate with the MILF if it was to carry out operations in its territory.
The incident delayed the passage of a Muslim autonomy law, which was eventually signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018.