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Philippines claims win over "lawless elements" but peace with Muslim rebels remains elusive

A Filipino Muslim flashes the peace sign as he holds a placard during a "Prayer-for-Peace" rally near the Presidential Palace Friday Oct. 28, 2011 in Manila, Philippines.
A Filipino Muslim flashes the peace sign as he holds a placard during a "Prayer-for-Peace" rally near the Presidential Palace Friday Oct. 28, 2011 in Manila, Philippines. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

"The safe haven of kidnapping operations and terrorist activities in Zamboanga Sibugay has fallen."

These were the words of Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, commander of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), as he claimed victory over "lawless elements" in war-torn Southern Philippines.

After a three-day air and ground assault on the vast marshland thought to be the hideout of a group of about 100 fighters led by Waning Abdulsalam - a renegade commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim separatist group - the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) now says they have taken possession of enemy territory.

"Yes (this is a victory) for us. It's major because this is a big loss to them. Even if we are to say they are not completely decimated, they have broken up," said military spokesperson Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr.

But the main target of the offensive, Abdulsalam, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of Italian missionary, the Rev. Giancarlo Bossi, in 2010 and several others, remains elusive.

Government troops found traces of blood and shallow graves as they swept the camp and cleared it of land mines, signs of intense fighting, Burgos believes, that could have left Abdulsalam either heavily wounded or dead.

It was the first time in almost three years that the Philippine military has embarked on such an operation, owing to the fact that there is actually a ceasefire agreement between the government and the separatists.

It is widely seen as an act of retaliation after clashes between government forces and members of the separatist group in Al Barka in the province of Basilan, a known stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group, left 19 soldiers dead.

The incident has sparked calls to abandon peace negotiations and go for an "all out war" against the group, and while President Benigno Aquino III resisted the idea, he did authorize the military operations in Zamboanga Sibugay, a move seen as striking a delicate balance between appeasing the separatists and bowing down to pressure from the military.

"It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations at this time," he said. "If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm's way. We will not pursue all-out war. We will instead pursue all-out justice."

But critics are questioning why the pursuit for justice is being directed at a group that has very little, if nothing, to do with the incident in Basilan, at a location almost 100 miles from the site of the massacre.

Gen. Eduardo Oban, chief of the armed forces, gave assurances that a similar operation will be mounted in Basilan, but that careful planning and intelligence work is needed.

"Our operation in Basilan against lawless elements is ongoing. We are hunting down personalities. We have crafted an objective, deliberate and calibrated response. We just have to couple this with good intelligence work," he said.

The Liberation Front has owned up to the killing of the 19 soldiers, saying government troops encroached into their territory, effectively violating the ceasefire agreement. But as Maria Ressa, a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research, reports, a classified military document details a 10-hour battle between government forces and the Abu Sayyaf a few miles away from the militant camp.

And yet, Aquino has effectively cleared the group of any accountability when he said that he was going to run after the Abu Sayyaf and not members of the Liberation Front.

It has been quite a turn of events for the Philippine government and the Liberation Front. Just a few months ago, hopes were high that both camps could reach a peace agreement soon after Aquino met with the group's leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in Tokyo.

In an interview with CBS News last August, Liberation Front Vice-Chair for Political Affairs Ghadzali Jaafar expressed confidence that a political settlement could be made during the term of Aquino.

"We believe that President Aquino is serious and sincere in trying to solve the problem in Mindanao," he said. "I think the government is treating the (Liberation Front) proposal as a serious proposal."

The proposal was for a "substate," one where they will have adequate powers to govern themselves but will leave matters of national defense, foreign relations, currency, and postal services to the national government, much like how a state functions in a federal system of government.

But when talks resumed, the government's counterproposal did not satisfy the group's demands, leaving the fate of both Christians and Muslims in Southern Philippines uncertain.

"I don't think the Bangsamoro people will accept a government which has no authority, has no power, a government just like the autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao," Jaafar told CBS News.

The recent spate of clashes in Basilan and Zamboanga has left 30,000 people displaced, and until the government and the separatists can find a middle ground, the 30-year old insurgency will go on, and innocent civilians will continue to pay the price.

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