By Jim Gomez
The Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines needs tougher laws to deal with the more than 1 million illegal firearms in the country, some of which may have been smuggled in from Afghanistan for use by Muslim guerrillas, officials said Monday, May 18.
The firearms — many of which are in the volatile southern Mindanao region — have stoked the country’s Muslim and communist rebellions, crime, and violence in a country with deep political divisions.
About a tenth of the illegal firearms are on southern Jolo Island, where al-Qaida–linked militants are active, officials Police Chief Superintendent Reynaldo Rafal told a firearms summit that the country has about 1.1 million illegal firearms, mostly unlicensed guns owned by civilians and those whose licenses have not been renewed. Nearly 16,000 are in the hands of communist and Muslim guerrillas, he added.
The estimate was the highest ever.
Jolo, which has been grappling with Abu Sayyaf extremist militants, banditry, and violent political and clan confrontations, could have as many as 100,000 illegal firearms, Casabar said.
Jolo Gov. Sakur Tan has launched a crackdown in the predominantly Muslim province, where gunfire usually greets family milestones like a baby’s birth, weddings, or even rare natural events like an eclipse.
Most illegal guns in Mindanao, scene of a decades-old rebellion by minority Muslims, came from illegal gunsmiths or were smuggled in. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, is believed to have obtained some firearms from Afghanistan and Lebanon, Casabar said. Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied that, saying his group now manufactures all of its weapons. The 11,000-strong rebel group initially bought some firearms from other countries to copy their features, Kabalu said.
“We’re now producing our own. We’re self-reliant,” Kabalu told The Associated Press.
He declined to say how many guns his group has, saying recent monthslong clashes with government troops may have caused a considerable decline in rebel firepower.
“The proliferation of firearms reinforces a climate of fear and culture of violence in Mindanao,” military deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Daniel Casabar Jr. said, adding that “guns have almost become a fashion accessory to display power and authority” in some communities.
National police chief Jesus Versoza said several proposals to strengthen the national gun control law will be discussed.
From 2006 to last year, about 14,500 crimes like killings and robberies were committed using more than 16,000 firearms, almost all illegal, Rafal said.
In 2007 nationwide elections, at least 25 people were killed, mostly with guns, officials said.
The summit in Manila was organized by police partly to help ensure order in next year’s presidential election. ♦