MILF camp falls; 30 killed


Biggest air strike launched in a decade

By Inquirer Mindanao, Tarra Quismundo, Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:43:00 08/23/2008

SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao, Philippines — Backed by the biggest aerial bombardment in nearly a decade, government forces Friday drove out Moro rebels from one of their camps in Maguindanao province, and fighting raged on elsewhere in rice fields and marshlands, officials said.

About 30 rebels and one soldier have been killed since Wednesday and more than 70,000 villagers have fled their homes, the officials said.

And Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Commander Ombra Kato is on the run.

Some 30 aircraft, including OV-Bronco bomber planes, MG-520 rocket-firing attack helicopters, a pair of Italian-made S-211 jets from Basa Air Base in Pampanga province, north of Manila, and rescue choppers, have been thrown into the battle, Philippine Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Pedrito Cadungog told the Inquirer.

“We have bigger operations now in terms of assets and area covered than in Abubakar in 2000,” Cadungog said, referring to the all-out military offensive eight years ago that led to the capture of Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao, the biggest base of the MILF.

No space to breathe

“We deemed it smarter this time not to give them space to breathe,” the Air Force chief said. “We were a bit soft at first assuming that it will not escalate. We are ready for any escalation of action.”

An Air Force source said Friday’s air strikes delivered a total of 25 bombs and 12 rockets on six targets around Shariff Aguak. They included a dozen 500-lb bombs, nine 260-pounders and four 110-pounders.

“The results are good based on reports of our ground troops,” Cadungog said. “They are happy that we’ve had direct hits.”

Kato on the run

In Friday’s clashes, soldiers captured a satellite camp of Kato in Datu Piang town.

Kato is one of two most wanted MILF commanders whose surrender has been demanded by the government, blaming them for the killing of dozens of civilians in attacks in the provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sarangani.

The MILF has refused to hand over Kato and Commander Bravo—each wanted for P5 million—and clashes have continued despite appeals from politicians, and Christian, Muslim and civil society groups for an end to the fighting.

Col. Marlou Salazar, commander of the Philippine Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade, said air strikes had resumed against Kato’s forces and ground troops pressed their advance.

Journalists rescued

Two broadcast journalists and three civilians, including a pregnant woman, who had been trapped since Thursday evening, have been rescued and brought to Cotabato City, the military said.

Radio Mindanao Network station manager Bong Talamba and GMA Network stringer Ferdinand Cabrera were covering a firefight in Datu Piang but MILF snipers fired on them as they were about to leave the area, according to Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, spokesperson of the military’s 6th Infantry Division.

Ando confirmed the situation had worsened and that MILF rebels had been conducting ambuscades.

“They were trying to take control of the highway. The highway was closed to motorists Friday morning but was reopened after having been cleared of rebels,” Ando said.

Dozens wounded

Salazar said the rebel casualties came from air strikes and clashes on the ground. Dozens of other rebels have been wounded since the hostilities broke out on Wednesday in the towns of Guindulungan, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Piang, Mamasapano, Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao and Kabuntalan in nearby Shariff Kabunsuan province.

On Friday alone, 10 rebels were killed, he said.

Salazar said the number of rebel casualties was based on intercepted radio conversations among the guerrillas.

“The group of Commander Kato has abandoned their satellite camp in Datu Piang and our soldiers have taken over,” he said.

More fighting feared

Eleven soldiers were injured when rebels waylaid a military convoy in Guindulungan town on Thursday evening, said Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, deputy spokesperson of the Eastern Mindanao Command.

Cabangbang said the military had met strong resistance and “expected more clashes.”

“Our ground troops are penetrating their main objectives and we will be deploying additional soldiers from Davao City,” he said.

He identified the wounded soldiers as Sgt. Renato Jaime Canuto; Corporals Alfredo Isidro and Edgar Gulerno; Privates First Class Elire Guaro, Jogie Dumon, Ricky Encluna, Bonn Dumaguing, Albert Velasco, Arlan Moanes, Mark Anthony Cabañog, and Pvt. Boni John Tilad.

Salazar said it appeared that Kato’s group was being reinforced by other MILF units.

“We have shelled the rebels’ position since Thursday night until Friday morning. The enemies are getting stronger,” Salazar said.

Brig. Gen. Jorge Segovia, acting chief of the command center of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the 601st Brigade under Salazar “has been engaging the enemy heavily” in the towns of Shariff Aguak, Mamasapano, Datu Piang, and Crossing Salbo in Maguindanao.

Rice fields and marshlands

Segovia described the battlefield as rice fields and marshlands.

He said artillery and planes had been hitting the MILF’s temporary shelters or satellite camps, which were fortified with foxholes and trenches, and sending the guerrillas “running around in places right now.”

“Some are not so sure where they are going,” Segovia said.

Segovia said that in North Cotabato, the 602nd Brigade under Army Col. Alex Estomo were engaged in “sporadic firefight” with other guerrillas under Abdullah Macapaantar, alias Commander Bravo.

Military targets

Segovia warned other MILF commands not to provide sanctuary to Bravo, Kato and their men.

“Their positions will be military targets,” he said, adding: “Our orders are to crush these groups. This is what the AFP will continue to do. We can’t allow ourselves to be hostaged by their actions.”

Segovia said that since most MILF satellite camps were near populated communities, thousands of residents had evacuated.

Elsewhere, four civilians were rushed to the Cotabato Regional Hospital after they were reportedly hit during the military bombardment.

It was not clear why the civilians were still in their village when most of the people had already evacuated.

Food aid

Based on figures released by the health department of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), more than 70,000 people had fled the besieged areas.

Segovia gave reporters in Manila seemingly different figures. He said that according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), there were a total of 84,669 evacuees from Lanao del Norte and Maguindanao staying in 92 different evacuation centers.

Another report from the NDCC, however, placed the affected/displaced people at nearly 200,000.

The NDCC said that the atrocities in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte had resulted in 40,138 families or 199,692 people affected.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said it had agreed with the government to provide an additional 250 metric tons of rice to help feed the thousands of evacuees.

Fireworks banned

In Koronadal City in South Cotabato, Mayor Fernando Miguel has banned fireworks and public gatherings as the Maguindanao situation appeared to be worsening.

“We want to ensure the safety and security of our constituents amid MILF warning of more rebel attacks and destabilization activities in Mindanao,” Miguel said.

In Sarangani province, Gov. Miguel Dominguez ordered the reactivation of the civilian defense force in the villages as a protection against further MILF attacks.

Dominguez said he would rather that the situation be resolved peacefully.

“I’m just hoping that the government and MILF could find a way to stop the armed fighting and resume the peace process,” Dominguez said.

Third party needed

Abhoud Syed Lingga, executive director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies based in Cotabato City, said the participation of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) was badly needed.

“Recent events showed once again the urgency of third party monitors to sustain the ceasefire in order to keep the peace process on track,” Lingga said.

In North Cotabato, education officials said classes had to be conducted in evacuation centers, especially in the town of Pikit, so that children would not miss their lessons.

In Cagayan de Oro City, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said he had asked Speaker Prospero Nograles to order lawmakers to donate at least P100,000 for the needs of displaced residents of Maguindanao. With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Edwin Fernandez, Charlie Señase, Nash Maulana, Aquiles Zonio and Grace Albasin, Inquirer Mindanao, and Agence France-Presse

================

My Take:

1. MILF camp “falling” is not a big news.  MILF is waging now a guerilla war, so, camps, especially the empty ones will easily “fall.”  The reporter must understand this in order for them to present the correct perspective of the news they are presenting.

2. On air strikes.  Air strikes are not the best form of military offensive.  Air strikes are politically weak.  Another point, the most important point, is this, the Philippine government is pushing air strikes inside their own territory, effectively putting innocent civilians (citizens) in harm’s way.

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