85T Muslims flee homes


Military presses offensive in Maguindao


BY VICTOR REYES

CLOSE to 85,000 Muslim residents have fled their homes as the military stepped aerial bombing and artillery bombardment of Moro Islamic Liberation Front camps in Maguindanao province.

Brig. Gen. Jorge Segovia, acting chief of the AFP Command Center, yesterday said the evacuation left warplanes and artillery pieces with only rebels as targets.

“Their (MILF) positions are military targets. The civilians have left. That accounts for the number of IDPs (internally displaced persons) that has increased,” he said.

Segovia said the military recorded 17,056 families or 84,669 persons as having been displaced by the fighting.

Two Mindanao-based bishops appealed to the AFP to stop conducting “general strikes” at suspected MILF camps to avoid civilian losses.

“Sana ang gawin ng military ay magkaroon ng tinatawag na surgical strikes lamang, hindi yung general ang atake na ginagawa. Huwag sana yung indiscriminate firing para hindi naman ma-apektuhan ang mga civilians,” Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo.

“Sana ay maging mahinahon sila dahil ang talagang ina-alala namin dito ay yung mga sibilyan. Huwag na lang sana air strikes ang gawin nila. Dapat yung man-to-man ang labanan, harapan ba. Kung air strikes kasi, masyadong madami ang civilians na apektado. Hindi na justified,” Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Peña said.

President Arroyo allayed fears of all-out war, saying the military is targeting only the MILF’s 102nd, 103rd and 105th Base Commands, headed respectively by Commanders Bravo (Abdullah Saber Macapaar), Aleem Sulaiman Pangalian and Umbra Kato.

She said the MILF should surrender the commanders, whom she described as “recalcitrants,” because peace should be anchored on justice.

Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog, Air Force chief, said six locations in Shariff Aguak town were targeted yesterday by warplanes in support of ground forces from the 601st Brigade and Scout Rangers.

“All S-211, OV-10 and SF-260 (airplanes) delivered bombs and rockets.

A spokesman of the 6th Infantry Division said up to a hundred MILF rebels have been killed by the bombardments.

“That’s the information from the civilians, plus the observation of the troops because when we request for air support and artillery, we observe the fires,” said Lt. Col. Julieto Ando.

“The firing of the artillery, mortar and close-air support is very accurate,” Ando said.

He said the military, however, has counted only 10 bodies as the rebels bring their dead with them when they withdraw.

Segovia said fighting was going on in Shariff Aguak, Datu Ping, Mamasapano and Datu Saudi Ampatuan.

“These are the cluster of towns where our battalions under the 601st Brigade have been engaging the enemy heavily. There have been calls for fire from the artillery and our air assets so there have been a series of sorties and artillery fires,” said Segovia.

The military official said that based on the reports from the commanders on the ground, the artillery and air strikes “have been hitting their targets” and that “based on their assessments we have been inflicting heavy casualty.”

“For the past two-and-a-half days, we have made contact with the group of Umbra Kato and our forces, as we speak, are heavily engaged,” Segovia said.

Kato led the occupation of at least 15 barangays in North Cotabato. Government troops dislodged the rebels last Aug. 13 after three days of clearing operation.

Last Monday, Bravo’s 102nd Base Command attacked Iligan City and four towns in Lanao del Norte, resulting in the killing of 28 civilians, three soldiers – including Lt. Col. Angel Benitez – and a soldier.

Segovia said troops were meeting resistance but were hot on the heels of Kato and Bravo.

“Our commanders have been reporting that they have been occupying their objectives, overrunning them, inflicting heavy casualty in the process,” he said.

“While there have been resistance, the (rebel) groups there have been running around because wherever they withdraw, they bump into some of our battalions,” he said.

On Thursday, troops from the 63rd Reconnaissance Company were ambushed by MILF rebels in Barangay Pansol in Guindulungan town, resulting in the killing of a soldier and wounding of 10 others, said Eastern Mindanao Command spokesman Maj. Armand Rico.

Segovia said the fighting has reached Maguindanao because the orders from higher authorities have changed from “clearing operation to pursuit operations.”

“We will run after them wherever it takes us,” he said.

Segovia said some of the artillery fires and air strikes hit MILF satellite camps.

Asked if these satellite camps were among the bases declared by the MILF as their places of temporary stay under the peace process, Segovia said: “Some of them are satellite camps, some of them are abandoned camps but the order to us is to pursue and hit them wherever they withdraw.”

Segovia reiterated his earlier appeal to MILF fighters who do not serve Kato and Bravo to get out of military’s way so they would not become targets also,

Asked if the attacks could be seen as violations of the cease-fire agreement, Segovia said: “Not really. We are not the ones who broke the ceasefire. These groups (of Kato and Bravo) are no longer covered by the ceasefire.”

“They did not follow the instructions of the MILF leadership and therefore, effectively, they got out of the protection of the ceasefire agreement. As far as we are concerned, we do not consider them as covered by any ceasefire agreement. If they withdraw to another area, wherever that place is, we will hit them. That is the order to the military,” he added.

The Commission on Human Rights expressed alarm over possible human rights violations due to the rising number of displaced persons.

It also called for the possible tapping of international humanitarian aid.

“Armed conflict is the worst environment for human rights…When insurgency groups attack villages, they are violating human rights – they cause bodily harm, force civilians to flee their homes and their livelihood and deprive vulnerable sectors of decent living conditions, work and education,” it said.

A CHR team, led by Commissioner Ma. Victoria Cardona, that visited nine evacuation centers in five municipalities in North Cotabato from Aug. 14 to17 showed that 100,000 persons were affected by the clash between government and MILF troops.

The findings of the monitoring team include inadequate shelter and potable water, poor sanitation, no regular supply of food, lack of medical care and medicine, disrupted schooling of children because of the use of schoolbuildings as evacuation centers, lack of psycho-social interventions for evacuees, and disorganized implementation of the local plan for disaster management.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque said many of the evacuees suffering from flu and respiratory ailments.

Duque cited the packed environment common in evacuation centers as the reason that made the two contagious diseases more highly communicable.

According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), at least 12,000 people already fled their homes in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte,

Duque said the medicine supplies have been stocked in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga. – With Regina Bengco, Jocelyn Montemayor and Gerard Naval(Malaya)

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