SOLDIERS POISED TO ATTACK MAJOR MILF CAMP

Cotabato City, Feb. 20, 2003 -- Thousands of families have fled villages around the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stronghold near Pikit town, as thousands of soldiers gathered in nearby Cotabato City, preparing for an attack on a Muslim guerrilla camp the government alleges is harboring terrorists.

"We are going to assault that area," Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes told reporters in Manila.

He said the troops are "in hot pursuit of certain lawless elements, principally the kidnap for ransom groups and people responsible in the bombing last December 24" of the town of Sharif Aguak, he added.

The area commander, Army Colonel Carduzo Luna, said the five Army and Marine battalions, or around 2,500 soldiers, were in the marshy area where between 1,500 and 2,000 gunmen have been seen.

The group includes MILF rebels, he said.

Some 22,000 civilians have fled 11 surrounding villages and sought shelter in the town center, he added.

Reyes gave a lower estimate of about 1,000 gunmen including MILF guerrillas.

"This place, where they are right now, is the refuge and safe haven of a lot of lawless elements and kidnap for ransom personalities such as Tahir Alonto," he said, referring to a suspected leader of the Pentagon gang of Muslim kidnappers.

"We are there to enforce the law. We are there to see to it that the communities are protected from these lawless elements."

Luna said the attack could be launched as early as Monday. The gunmen began massing in the area on Saturday, he added.

Eid Kabalu, the MILF spokesman, accused the government of provoking confrontation.

In an interview with Cotabato radio station DXMS, he charged that the attack was part of the government's tactic to bully the MILF into accepting a settlement to the 25 year-old rebellion.

The MILF has an estimated 12,500 guerrillas, operating on the mainly Muslim western half of Mindanao island.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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