Manila, Feb. 11, 2003 -- Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes yesterday ordered an assault on a MILF camp in Pikit, North Cotabato where about 1,000 men including members of the Pentagon kidnap group led by Alonto Tahir and separatist rebels are holed out.

Reyes, however, refused to say when the assault will commence.

He told a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo that he has coordinated the move with North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piņol.

"Gov. Manny Piņol is very supportive of this operation. I was talking with him last night and he said this is something that we must do," he said.

"The situation is manageable and we are doing this because we cannot allow lawless elements to claim that they have camps," Reyes said.

He said the lawless elements holed out in the MILF camp were involved in the recent bomb attack in Shariff Aguak town, Maguindanao.

The military said some 3,000 troops from three infantry divisions plus a Marine brigade, 20 tanks, six fighter jets and six helicopter gunships were gearing for the assault.

More than 3,000 civilians have been evacuated from Pikit as troops backed by heavy artillery and helicopter gunships poured in.

Wire reports, quoting military officials, said the troops are set to strike at a large force of Islamic rebels to thwart sympathy attacks if the United States presses ahead with a war against Iraq.

Lt. Col. Michael Manquiquis, AFP spokesman, dismissed warnings by communist rebels that they would step up their offensive if the United States attacked Iraq.

"There is nothing new in those threats since terrorism has always been the only language they (communists) know," he said.

CPP-NPA spokesman Gregorio Rosal earlier urged Filipinos to "defend the Iraqi people and sovereignty" against US attacks.

A group of military engineers on a morning jog were ambushed by a least 10 MILF rebels in Matanog town, Maguindanao on Monday. One soldier and two civilians were killed. Eight soldiers were also wounded in the attack.

Maj. Julieto Ando, spokesman of the Army's 6th Infantry Division in Maguindanao, described the ambush as an act of treachery.

"The people they attacked are non-combatants and humanitarian workers," he said.

He said more than 2,000 guerrillas were massing in Maguindanao and North Cotabato and could be preparing for a major attack.

MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu denied his group would mount an offensive, but "MILF forces are ready to defend their territories." (Al Jacinto, with Victor Reyes for Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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