Fighting heats up; AFP bombs rebels, 16 dead


By Inquirer Mindanao, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 05:05:00 08/22/2008

COTABATO CITY—Fighting between government soldiers and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels Thursday escalated in the provinces of Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan and North Cotabato, sending thousands of villagers fleeing from their homes.

At least 16 rebels and one soldier were killed while a dozen others, including four soldiers, were wounded, the military reported.

The bodies of 12 rebels were seen by residents being carried by their comrades after the military dropped bombs and fired cannons on Damatulan village on the border of Midsayap, North Cotabato and Datu Piang in Maguindanao, Lt. Col. Julieto Ando of the 6th Infantry Division told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net).

In Shariff Aguak town, capital of Maguindanao, the military said four rebels were killed and eight others wounded in the air and ground offensive.

“Aside from our ground troops, we are shelling their positions. They are strong so we have to use air support,” said Col. Marlou Salazar, commander of the Army’s 604th Infantry Brigade. He said the air strikes resumed against MILF rebels holed up in Shariff Aguak town in Maguindanao.

“We also fired several howitzer rounds to drive away hundreds of rebels in the village of Tapikan, Mamasapano and in the remote areas of Datu Saudi and Datu Piang towns,” he said.

The skirmishes that began on Wednesday resulted in the exodus of more than 70,000 residents from Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi, Mamasapano, Datu Piang, Datu Unsay towns in Maguindanao, and from Kabuntalan and Northern Kabuntalan in Shariff Kabunsuan, said Dr. Tahir Sulaik, health secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The residents sought refuge in the town centers, Sulaik said. “Schools and all other available public buildings, including mosques, are currently serving as temporary shelters of these people,” he said.

AFP operations intensified

Brig. Gen. Jorge Segovia, acting chief of the AFP Command Center, said the intensified military operations were against “recalcitrant groups” of the MILF. He urged the other rebel fighters “to get out of the way.”

“We are running against the members of three base commands,” Segovia told reporters in Manila. He identified the MILF leaders as Abdulla Macapaar, alias commander Bravo, a certain commander Pangalian, and Ameril Ombra Kato.

Bravo, who heads the MILF’s 102nd Base Command, and Pangalian of the 103rd Base Command led their men on a rampage in Kolambugan, Kauswagan and two other towns in Lanao del Norte on Monday that killed at least 26 people, including Army Lt. Col. Angel Benitiez.

The MILF leader was disgusted when government peace negotiators failed to sign a memorandum of agreement on a proposed Bangsamoro homeland following a Supreme Court order.

Kato heads the MILF’s 105th Base Command in North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

“Anybody who will support these groups that we are pursuing, will join them, and sympathize with them becomes also part of our operations,” Segovia said. “Anybody who harbors the fugitive becomes liable. It’s that simple.”

No surrender

The government filed criminal charges against Kato for the attacks against civilians in North Cotabato, but the MILF Thursday said that “definitely,” it would not surrender Kato and Bravo.

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF chief negotiator for the peace process, said the MILF would conduct an “internal investigation” into the attacks.

As a “revolutionary organization,” the MILF will “never turn over our men to them,” he said.

The MILF has its own “internal justice” system under which Bravo and Kato would be tried if ever they committed a crime, Iqbal said. The two commanders have been “restrained” by the MILF leadership, he said.

To defend Kato, Bravo

He said MILF guerrillas would “fight it out” with government troops if they tried to arrest Bravo and Kato.

Police filed charges of multiple arson, robbery in band, serious illegal detention, murder and attempted murder against Kato for armed incursions in North Cotabato. Separate charges are set to be filed against Bravo.

In General Santos City, Senior Supt. Casimiro Medes, police information chief in Central Mindanao, said policemen were still hunting down MILF rebels and Abu Sufia gang members who were involved in Monday’s raid in Maasim, Sarangani, resulting in two civilian fatalities.

The AFP Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom) said soldiers belonging to the 40th IB and the 6th Infantry Division clashed for more than three hours with rebels in Barangay Matilak in Kabuntalan in Shariff Kabunsuan.

The rebels, belonging to the MILF’s 105th Base Command, were led by Zaid Pakiladato, alias Commander Jad and Commander Mesay, according to Maj. Armand Rico, Eastmincom spokesperson.

No government casualties were reported.

Radio talk

Salazar said the military found that the MILF suffered four fatalities from the rebels’ radio conversations that it intercepted.

Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, Eastern Mindanao deputy spokesperson, said fighting erupted in Damatuan village in Midsayap town in North Cotabato as soldiers pursued Kato and another MILF leader, Wahid Tundok.

Four soldiers were wounded, he said. He identified them as T/Sgt. Roland Apdulan, and Privates First Class Roland Ragonton, Tito Puerto and Nurhasin Abdurahim, all of the Army’s 40th Infantry Battalion.

“We did not start the fighting,” said Eid Kabalu, MILF civil-military affairs chief. He said the soldiers “intruded” into MILF areas in Maguindanao and were attacked by “members of the MILF peacekeeping force.”

Although he did not comment on the reported rebel fatalities, Kabalu claimed that four military officers were killed in the clashes.

Segovia said the increased military operations in Central Mindanao did not mean full-scale offensives. “There is no all-out war … We are stepping up military operations so there will be all-out peace in Mindanao,” he said

“We tried all the peaceful means necessary but for some of the groups, this is the only language they understand,” Segovia said.

Appeal to halt hostilities

ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan has appealed for a halt in the hostilities.

“All of us want peace and the autonomous government supports any peace initiative that is anchored on the Constitution and through public consultation,” he said.

He also called on the MILF to desist from attacking civilian areas.

“Employing force and intimidation by attacking towns and villages in the region just to get the attention of the national government is a form of terrorism and considered a high-profile criminal offense.”

Ampatuan reminded the MILF leadership that the ones suffering from the violence were “our own innocent Muslim brothers and sisters whom we are supposed to protect.” With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Edwin Fernandez, Nash Maulana, Charlie Señase, Aquiles Zonio, Ryan D. Rosauro and Rex Ortega, Inquirer Mindanao

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