REBELS USE VILLAGERS AS HUMAN SHIELDS IN MINDANAO BATTLE

Cotabato City, Feb. 14, 2003 -- Separatist Muslim rebels on Thursday raided a village in the southern Philippines and held hostage a still undetermined number of civilians, as fighting between military and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces entered its entered 3nd day, officials said.

A regional Army spokesman Major Julieto Ando said troops pursuing the rebels also recovered Thursday at least 20 bodies of MILF and Pentagon Gang members on a village in Lambayong town in Sultan Kudarat province, bringing the death toll to 97 since the fighting brokeout Tuesday.

Three soldiers have been killed so far and 21 others wounded in the clashes, Ando said.

Security forces on Thursday surrounded the village of Bual in North Cotabato's Pikit town, where about 50 heavily-armed rebels are holding hostage a still unknown number of civilians. "The villagers are being held hostage and used as shield against soldiers," Ando said.

Ando said fierce fighting continued in many towns in Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, where rebel forces are scattered.

The military estimated the number of rebels in the three provinces at more than2,000. But Ando saidmore troops have beendeployed on Wednesday in the area and now could reach around 5,000 with a dozen government choppers and bomber planes targeting MILF guerrillas and members of thePentagon kidnap gang.

"There are fighting in different areas and we are more concerned about the safety of the civilians," Ando said.

Southern Philippines military chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya on Thursday accused the MILF of coddling terrorists and kidnappers."We have warned them, but they never listen to us and we will not allow the MILF and the Pentagon Gang to sow terror in the southern Philippines," he said.

Defense Secy. Angelo Reyes said the rebels were attacking different military positions in central Mindanao. "The MILF-Pentagon Gang continue to mount attacks, targetingnot only the military but civilians," he said.

Manila has suspended peace talks with the MILF in 2001 because of rebel attacks.

Reyes said: "We will continue to keep the door open for a negotiated settlement, but while the door is open we cannot force them to come in." (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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