Manila, Feb. 13, 2003 (Malaya) -- Military operations in Pikit, North Cotabato resumed yesterday following the order of President Arroyo to capture and occupy the Bulliok complex near the former MILF camp of Raja Muda where about 1,000 rebels and members of the Pentagon kidnap gang are holed out.

Camp Raja Muda straddles the towns of Pagulangan, Sultan sa Barongis, and Bagagawa in Maguindanao and Pikit.

Arroyo said the military campaign "is not directed against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front," but she quickly warned that "our troops will defend themselves against any force blocking their mission to eliminate criminal gangs in Mindanao."

She said her administration wants to achieve a peaceful settlement with the MILF, hopefully within the first half of the year.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the decision to resume the operations was reached during a two-hour meeting in Malacaņang attended by Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, presidential chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao, Norberto Gonzales, presidential adviser on the peace concerns and Paul Dominguez, senior consultant on regional development.

Bunye said Arroyo was in touch with Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command chief; Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga of the 6th Infantry Division, and Col. Cardoso Luna of the 602nd Infantry Brigade.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said Arroyo's directive has been relayed to ground troops and they are now moving in.

Reyes also asked the MILF leadership to turn over Pentagon leader Alonto Tahir and other criminal elements.

"If they don't surrender him ... then they are in violation of the ... cease-fire agreement," he said.

At least 2,500 soldiers were surrounding the Bolliok complex when Arroyo ordered the suspension of military operations Tuesday. The reason given by the Palace for the suspension was observance of Eid'l Adha or the Feast of Sacrifice and the ongoing peace negotiations with the MILF.

Shortly after Arroyo gave the order to resume hostilities, the MILF peace panel snubbed a meeting of the cease-fire committee called by presidential assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza in Cotabato City yesterday afternoon.

"Why should we attend when the military is continuing to shell us?" MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told Reuters.

"It only shows that President Arroyo has no control of the military," he said, referring to the continued military shelling of rebel positions despite Arroyo's order to suspend hostilities.

The military said MILF rebels took advantage of the temporary halt of offensives and launched at least five attacks.

AFP spokesman Col. Essel Soriano said three soldiers were killed and eight others were wounded in the rebel attacks, which began before midnight on Tuesday.

Quoting reports from the field, Soriano said the initial attack was at 11:25 p.m. when about 100 MILF and Pentagon gang members attacked the Marine Battalion Landing Team 8 in Barangay Rudal, Pagalungan town, Maguindanao.

At around 2 a.m. yesterday, at least 100 rebels attacked the 2nd Special Forces Battalion in barangay Darampua, Sultan sa Barongis town, Maguindanao.

Also at dawn yesterday, the rebels toppled two power pylons of the National Power Corp. in Bagagawan town, Maguindanao.

Troops also disarmed two bombs on two power pylons in Pagalungan.

At around 11:15 a.m. yesterday, another group of rebels attacked the Army's 40th Infantry Battalion at Barangay Bulol, in Pikit.

Soriano said they have received reports that 15 rebels were killed and 18 wounded.

He said the conflict has so far resulted in the evacuation of some 18,000 civilians who are properly being taken care of by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Regional army spokesman Maj. Julieto Ando said at least 60 rebels have been killed since Tuesday.

Military officials said the MILF casualty toll was based on reports from villagers and intercepted radio messages.

Murad Ibrahim, MILF deputy for military affairs denied the reports, saying three rebels were killed and two wounded in the fighting since Tuesday.

The military has mobilized at least 35 tanks and armored personnel carriers, two OV-10 bombers, two MG-520 attack choppers and six UH-1H transport helicopters to ferry troops and weapons.

Security forces, backed by OV-10 bomber planes, shelled suspected Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Jolo, Sulu Wednesday.

The bandits under Galib Andang and Mujib Susukan were believed to be hiding in a mountain near Indanan town.

Security forces were also tracking down more than a hundred ASG bandits led by Radullan Sahiron in Patikul town. (By REGINA BENGCO and VICTOR REYES, with Al Jacinto)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved