Pikit, North Cotabato, Feb. 12, 2003 -- At least 52 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and suspected members of the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang were killed in a 12-hour "selective bombardment" of guerrilla positions here and in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, the military said yesterday.

In the afternoon, President Arroyo ordered the military to cease the offensive against the Muslim separatists in the area, ostensibly in deference to the end of the Eidíl Adha, an Islamic feast marking the end of the Hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Government troops, however, would remain in their positions, military officials said.

Military spokesman Army Maj. Julieto Ando said consolidated radio reports from different Army units carrying out the offensive indicated 52 MILF fighters and suspected Pentagon Gang members were killed during the gun battles.

Two of those killed were said to be foreign-trained, one identified only as "Fighter 1," a bomb expert who trained in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"According to reports, a big number of the MILF and Pentagonís fatalities were killed in the precise bombardment of their positions, plotted by our mathematicians with the help of evacuees and Muslim religious leaders in Pikit and Pagalungan," Ando said.

Ando, however, confirmed that two were killed in the government side and seven other servicemen wounded, two of them Marines.

Initial reports identified the dead as Army Pfc. Joseph Alferez and Sgt. Conchito Roslin.

Wounded were Capt. Neil Villanueva, 1Lt. Elmer Ocampo, Cpls. Morilo Castillon and Romeo de la PeŮa and Pfc. Guiamaludin Lucman. The two wounded Marines were identified as Pfc. Julamin Iningatan and Cpl. Dario Bajala.

Local officials in Pikit said among those wounded on the side of the MILF were followers of Ustadz Shamier, a sibling of MILF chieftain Hashim Salamat.

A brother of Pakil Ayunan, a notorious MILF commander who allegedly masterminded the killing of 16 Visayan settlers in Carmen, North Cotabato in 2000, was also killed after being shot by a sniper.

Thousands of soldiers attacked the Muslim guerrilla stronghold with artillery and tanks at dawn Tuesday, accusing the rebels of sheltering the Pentagon Group which is on the US terrorist list.

Ando said the fighting was concentrated in five villages around Pikit town on the border of North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces.

He said more than 50 rounds of 105-mm. Howitzer cannons hit about a dozen overhead MILF bunkers in Barangay Bulod and Kabasalan here, forcing the rebels to flee for safety but ending up as targets for advancing Army snipers.

Up to 20,000 villagers have sought shelter from the fighting in schools and other government buildings.

From an artillery base, the soldiers were seen firing cannon rounds every 30 minutes toward targets about 10-15 kilometers away. Sporadic gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade explosions reverberated through the area.

Army Col. Cardozo Luna said tanks were being used against the enemy scattered in the vast area as troops advanced into the rebel stronghold. Helicopter gunships fired rockets and aircraft dropped bombs on targets, said Ando. (Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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