Friday, June 09, 2006

Envoy : Nothing Underhand in Bounty for Terror Tipsters

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY ( MIKE BAÑOS / June 8 ) - US Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney today said there was nothing sinister about the US Government's paying bounty to two Filipino informers whose information led to the arrest in Zamboanga City last October of Hilario del Rosario Santos III, also known as Ahmed Islam Santos, alleged head of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), a group of Christian converts to Islam allegedly linked the Jemaah Islamiyan and the Abbu Sayyaf, and implicated in the February 2004 bombing of a Super Ferry ship that killed 116 people, the second worst terrorist attack in Asia, and has also been linked to plots to attack the US embassy and American nationals.

Kenney personally awarded the US$500,000 (PhP25.25M) bounty to the two informers in highly publicized turnover rites held at the US Embassy in Manila Wednesday.

In a press release circulated to media Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr.
questioned the propriety of awarding the money directly to the tipsters and its conformity to diplomatic conventions, Philippine or international laws.

"My impression is that the intention of the Americans is good," Pimentel said. "There is no question about it. But is it in accord with international laws or conventions for foreign embassies to show publicly their hands in the attempt to implement law and order in the territory of their host country?" Pimentel said. "Or is that a right accorded only to superpowers who might want to assert it as a prerogative?"

Although Kenney claimed she had no knowledge of Pimentel's observations, she assured nothing underhand was meant by it.

"It's a US State Department program called "Rewards for Justice" which pays cash bounties for information leading to the arrest of terrorists involved in attacks on Americans," she said, claiming rewards were an effective deterrent in the war against terror.

"Their goal is to destroy, and so they constantly seek to stay a step ahead of us in doing that. What we're doing here is trying very hard not to let them get a step ahead," Kenney told a news conference.

Kenney said the US Government has already paid out over US$62 million during the last seven years to informers who helped authorities capture and jail terrorists. In the Philippines, US officials have paid US$1.6 million in reward money to six Filipinos for helping government forces capture suspected terrorists, she said.

Pimentel acknowledged that while the efforts of the US government in helping the country's counter-terrorist campaign is good, something was amiss with the manner by which the reward money to informants was being handed out.

"That the Americans gave the reward money directly to the informants at the US Embassy speaks volumes about their lack of trust for the top Echelon of the AFP," the minority leader said. "We raise that question so that Malacañang and the Department of Foreign Affairs may clarify it," he added.

But Kenney said the awarding was done with the full knowledge of Philippine authorities, although she said she would find out later why the program was held in the US Embassy.

"The cooperation between the US and the Philippines on the war on terror is extraordinary," Kenney said. "I have never seen such a high level of cooperation elsewhere."

She remarked that she was extremely impressed by the "very strong will of the people for peace".

Kenney was in the city Thursday to attend rites awarding the Green Bank of Caraga's 30,000th microloan client under the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) Microenterprise Access to Banking Services (MABS) program and the launching of the U.S. Government-sponsored Education and Employment Alliance (EEA).

On another matter, however, the senator from Mindanao and the American diplomat were in perfect accord :

Kenney said the US is committed to help fund the integration of the MILF guerillas into the mainstream society once they sign a peace pact with the Philippine government. Kenney said the US would also provide an economic program to consolidate the continued integration of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which inked a peace treaty with the Philippine government on Sept. 2, 1996. "The US government hopes to offer a similar program if another major Muslim insurgent group signs a peace accord with the Philippine government," she said.

Pimentel said Monday it's about time the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front wrap up the peace negotiation and sign a long overdue final peace agreement after nine years of negotiations.

"The statement issued by the MILF peace panel ruling out the signing of a final agreement this year is unfortunate and a big letdown for the people of Mindanao who have long been clamoring for an end to decades of Muslim rebellion and full restoration of peace and stability in the island," he said.

The MILF in a statement issued by Jun Mantawil, head of the Front's peace panel secretariat, said it does not see a peace accord being concluded this year because government and rebel negotiators still have to fully iron out the issue of ancestral domain which will be the basis for the definition of Bangsa Moro territory.

The government earlier wanted to forge a final agreement with the MILF by September or before the start of the Ramadhan, the month-long Islamic period of fasting.

"This is a big headache for the nation," Pimentel said. "Without a final peace agreement, the people in Mindanao will live in constant fear of a shooting war."

Peace talks between the government and MILF began in 1997 under the Ramos administration, a year after the government concluded a peace pact with the Moro National Liberation headed by Chairman Nur Misuari.

The peace talks were continued by the Estrada administration but broke off after the 2000 "all-out war" declared by Estrada. The talks resumed in 2002 but took a new tack when the Arroyo administration tapped Malaysia as peace broker and facilitator.

Pimentel is advocating for the creation of a Bangsa Moro federal state, as part of a federalized Philippine republic, but acknowledges this would require amending the 1987 Constitution.

"I hope that the government and MILF will be able to settle the remaining issues in the peace talks. But it is unlikely they will be able to sign a final agreement unless the government will grant the MILF's demand for a system of governance where they will enjoy self-rule, and preserve their Islamic way of life and their cultural identity," the lone senator from Mindanao said.

""Rene Michael Banos" Link

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