Manila, Feb. 12, 2003 (Malaya) -- President Arroyo yesterday ordered a temporary halt to military operations in Pikit, North Cotabato in observance of the Muslim feast of Eid'l Adha or Hari Raya Haj, the Feast of Sacrifice and because of its implications on the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Jesus Dureza, presidential assistant for Mindanao, and head of the government panel in the MILF talks, said Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes called him up at around 1:30 p.m. to inform him of the President's directive.

Dureza told a press briefing after the Cabinet oversight committee on internal security meeting that Reyes asked him to inform the MILF of the order. He said he then called up MILF lawyer Lanang Ali.

Reyes on Monday ordered an assault on an MILF camp in Pikit where about 1,000 men, including members of the Pentagon kidnap gang led by Tahir Alonto, are holed out.

"It (Pikit operation) is giving us problems," Dureza said.

Dureza said he will fly to Cotabato City Wednesday to convene the ceasefire committee to discuss possible violations to the ongoing cease-fire with local leaders, the MILF peace panel, and MILF commanders.

He said also to be discussed is the alleged presence of Pentagon members in the MILF camp which he said is a violation of the May 6, 2002 joint GRP-MILF communique wherein the MILF vowed not to coddle lawless elements.

The committee meeting would also seek to pacify hurt feelings caused by the military assault in Pikit.

Asked if Reyes or the Armed Forces consulted his panel before launching the operation, Dureza said: "We have been in touch with them all the way but the military has its own objective."

The assault has angered top MILF officials because it was conducted during the observance of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It was also ordered on the same day that the Cabinet oversight committee on internal security (COCIS) approved the draft peace agreement with the MILF, which was endorsed by leaders of Congress, Dureza said.

"The next step is to endorse the draft to the President. We will give it to her anytime through (presidential adviser on the peace process) Eduardo Ermita," he said.

Dureza said once Arroyo approves the draft accord, the government and MILF peace panels would set a date for the resumption of formal talks in Malaysia.

Dureza said Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman and Reyes have been ordered to go to Cotabato to see to the needs of some 3,000 families who have sought safer ground due to the fighting.

Three MILF rebels and a soldier were killed in fierce fighting Tuesday in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command chief, said the clashes were triggered by simultaneous rebel attacks on military targets in the two provinces.

Troops also recovered an arms cache left by rebels in Pikit town in North Cotabato.

"There could be more enemy casualties. We have radio intercepts indicating that many rebels are killed and wounded," Abaya said.

A regional military spokesman, Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero, said two rebels were killed in Maguindanao province and an MILF member was gunned down in Pikit.

Abaya said military forces have suspended the offensive after the President ordered a halt.

But he said MILF forces continue to attack soldiers.

"We are now in a defensive stance. We will retaliate if MILF rebels attack our positions," Abaya said.

Abaya is scheduled to meet with senior commanders to assess the situation in central Mindanao.

AFP chief Gen. Dionisio Santaigo said the soldiers will not withdraw from their current positions.

He said the military is asking the MILF to withdraw to a range where their mortar fire cannot do any damage or cannot reach the soldiers. "Sila ang pumuputok at gumagalaw, hindi naman kami," he said.

AFP spokesman Col. Essel Soriano said the attack was mounted by the secessionist rebels while ground troops were awaiting orders from higher authorities whether to assault the rebel camp.

He said government forces have sighted Pentagon gang leader Tahir Alonto in the MILF lair.

The official said government forces have launched hot pursuit operations on the attackers. "There were bloodstains found on the route of withdrawal," said Soriano.

Soriano said government soldiers have so far recovered rifles, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades.

Government choppers and planes bombed MILF targets near the former MILF camps Abubakar al Siddique in Maguindanao and Rajah Muda in North Cotabato.

An Army spokesman, Major Julieto Ando, said more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed in the two provinces to counter the same number of rebels marshalling in the hinterlands.

At least 74 MILF members surrendered to the Philippine Army in Basilan over the weekend, but were presented to reporters only on Tuesday in Zamboanga City. (By REGINA BENGCO, with Al Jacinto and Victor Reyes)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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