Muslim rebels fan out in clashes with the military

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2003, 12:00am

Clashes between Muslim rebels and the Philippine military spilled into two more provinces yesterday, as both sides refused to give ground in a worsening crisis in the country's south.

The offensive against a notorious kidnap group, and Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerillas accused of harbouring the criminals, is spreading quickly from the rebels' stronghold in a vast marshland to neighbouring provinces on Mindanao island.

More than 30,000 villagers have sought shelter from the fighting in schools and other government buildings.

Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes boasted yesterday that the military operation would soon end victoriously with the occupation of the Buliok complex, a rebel-held area in Pikit, in North Cotabato province.

The area has long been identified as a sanctuary for criminals escaping the law.

'The situation in Pikit will be resolved because we are going to capture and occupy our objective before the week is over,' said Mr Reyes, a former military chief.

The military claimed that 100 'enemy' rebels had died, but only seven soldiers and five civilians.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye stressed that the military offensive was directed at members of the notorious Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom group and terrorist bombers, who had taken refuge in the rebel-held region.

But Ghazali Jaafar, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's vice-chairman for political affairs, said the military's claims about the success of its assault showed that the front's fighters were its real target. He said it was 'amazing that up to now the military has not announced killing a single Pentagon gang member, but they claim many rebels are already dead'. The rebels claimed only five guerillas had died and that they had killed 49 soldiers.

After President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the seizure of the rebel-held area in Pikit this week, Mr Jaafar said MILF fighters had decided to switch to unconventional warfare.

'We are fighting a very fluid tactical action,' he said, as the rebels fanned out to the border towns of the neighbouring provinces of Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao.

Some held several families hostage for a few hours, while others blocked two major roads in an attempt to draw government troops away from Pikit.

Mr Jaafar warned that the communist New People's Army might join the fray, as the MILF had a tactical alliance with the group.

Meanwhile, both sides waitto see who will break the impasse first.

Rebel peace negotiator Lanang Ale said: 'There should be a disengagement of forces from both sides.'

He said he was waiting for chief government peace negotiator Jesus Dureza to phone him.

A day earlier Mr Ale had snubbed a meeting set up by Mr Dureza. It was this snub that contributed to Mrs Arroyo's order that the attack resume.