- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu earned his stars as well as a fearsome reputation for tenacity in nearly three decades on the Philippines' battle fronts.
But with Muslim rebellions breaking out left and right, the southern Philippines military commander's instincts are facing their supreme test.
In the islands of Basilan and Jolo, the Abu Sayyaf group, with more than 1,000 members, has been kidnapping foreigners and Christians holding them for ransom in their jungle hide-outs. They still are holding two Americans and a Filipina nurse.
In the western part of the main southern island of Mindanao, shadowy, rogue Muslim guerrillas dubbed "the Pentagon" have been carrying out their own kidnappings and still hold an Italian Roman Catholic priest, seized in October.
More than 3,400 communist insurgents battle the military and extort money from local businesses in eastern and northern Mindanao. In early November, they burned telecommunications relay stations.
Sporadic clashes still occur with the main Muslim separatist rebel group, the 12,500-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), despite their signing of a cease-fire pact with the government and opening peace talks earlier this year.
The latest outbreak of violence came from followers of renegade Muslim regional governor Nur Misuari, who staged a pocket rebellion in Jolo on Nov. 19 in an attempt to derail the Nov. 26 election for his successor.
Mr. Misuari's revolt was quashed swiftly and he was arrested in Malaysia after he fled Jolo. But last week, more than 200 of his armed followers seized local residents as human shields in Zamboanga city in order to gain safe passage.
Despite the diverse challenges, Gen. Cimatu, 54, remains confident.
"The MILF as a force is depleted. The reason they entered into the peace process is they had no other options," he said.
As for the kidnappers, he is optimistic that the last of the Abu Sayyaf hostages will be recovered soon and that his troops can cut off the escape route of the Pentagon gang.
The slender, gray-haired Philippine Military Academy graduate has had extensive experience in Mindanao, serving as a platoon and company commander in the 1970s during the first outbreak of the Muslim separatist insurgency.
As commander of one of three army divisions permanently in Mindanao last year, he gained national attention by capturing the MILF's main training base.
Gen. Cimatu carries the fight to the enemy literally. In the assault on the MILF, he ordered an air strike on the home of MILF military chief Ibrahim Murad, much to the surprise of a local television station that had just arrived to interview the rebel leader.
When Mr. Misuari mounted his revolt in Jolo, Gen. Cimatu ordered an air strike on one of the Muslim leader's houses, a move that he believed demoralized the enemy and triggered their retreat.
Gen. Cimatu was promoted to deputy chief of staff the military's third-highest position when he was abruptly called back to Mindanao to head the Southern Command two months ago.
Military insiders say he was summoned to revitalize the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, whose kidnappings had embarrassed the country. The manhunt had been hobbled by slow progress and accusations of military collusion with the kidnappers.
Gen. Cimatu says he is not letting Mr. Misuari's rebellion divert attention from the Abu Sayyaf. Instead of shifting his forces from one island to another, he brought in battalions from the central and northern Philippines.
More than half the military's 75,000 army and marine soldiers are now in the south, under Gen. Cimatu's command.
U.S. military advisers, dispatched to the south last month to assess the local armed forces' capabilities, were shocked by the outdated, inadequate equipment but were impressed by Gen. Cimatu's leadership, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recalled proudly.
"They said my south commander is as good as they come; aggressive, competent and that is why I rely on his tactical judgment," Mrs. Arroyo said last week.
Such praise has spawned speculation that Gen. Cimatu might be made military chief of staff, although Mrs. Arroyo's aides insist the current chief, Gen. Diomedio Villanueva, will not be replaced.


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