MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The son of a Philippine army general killed with 34 of his men by Muslim guerrillas in a 1977 massacre assumed the country’s top military post on Thursday, calling on insurgents to abandon their decades-long rebellions and vowing to respect human rights in all military campaigns.
Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said in austere ceremonies led by President Benigno Aquino III that the 120,000-strong military needed to be freed up from counterinsurgency operations to allow government troops to focus on other urgent tasks, including strengthening the country’s territorial defense.
The Philippines has had recent territorial rifts with China over disputed South China Sea areas.
Bautista, 54, said he was dedicating the final chapter of his military career to his father, a one-star army general who was gunned down with his men by Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front who had invited him to a peace dialogue in the coastal town of Patikul in October 1977 on southern Jolo island.
He said his father “was and will always be my inspiration and role model as a soldier for peace.”
Bautista called on Muslim and communist insurgents to end their uprisings and pledged government troops under his watch would respect human rights, a touchy issue in a military that has been tarnished by accusations of rights violations, including abductions and killings of activists.
“We cannot but overemphasize adherence to human rights … in all military undertakings,” he said.
Bautista, a former army scout ranger who has battled Marxist and Muslim guerrillas, crafted the government’s counter-insurgency plan that took effect last year and which the military says focuses on helping foster development in the countryside than massive combat operations to win the hearts of rural villagers.
Bautista, meanwhile, welcomed efforts by hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front rebels to secure the release of foreign and local hostages, including a Jordanian and two European men, who were being held by the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, an especially violent group of about 380 gunmen based in Jolo’s jungles.
The Moro group blamed for killing of Bautista’s father is one of at least four Muslim guerrilla groups in the volatile south. It signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, but its rebels were not disarmed and returned to their communities on Jolo and other strongholds.
More than 1,000 Moro rebels gathered in Patikul in a show of force on Monday and sent emissaries to the Abu Sayyaf’s jungle lairs near Patikul to demand the captives’ release, which has not been granted so far, military officials said.
Moro rebel commander Khabir Malik said his group would take other steps if the negotiations go nowhere, suggesting the rebels could launch a rescue. He said his group intervened in the hostage crisis to help clean up the image of Sulu, where the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for deadly bombings, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings, especially in the early 2000s.
U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf, but it remains a key national security concern.
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