GOVT TROOPS TAKE MAJOR MILF CAMP

Pikit, North Cotabato, Feb. 14, 2003 - Government soldiers captured a major Moro Islamic Liberation Front stronghold in Mindanao after four days of intense fighting to flush out members of the notorious Pentagon kidnap gang and MILF guerrillas who harbor them.

Col. Cardozo Luna, head of the army's 602nd Infantry Brigade, said the village of Kabasalan was captured by about 600 troops in fierce fighting that left two soldiers dead.

The government says the village is headquarters for Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas. MILF rebels harbor members of the Pentagon kidnapping gang there, the government claims.

The military did not say whether it had captured any of the rebels. Reporters said Kabasalan was deserted and its defenders appeared to have fled and scattered in the countryside.

The fighting in and around the government-controlled town of Pikit, about 575 miles southeast of Manila, has left more than 100 people dead and up to 25,000 displaced.

The government is also fighting the MILF group in three neighboring provinces.

"All the combined elements of darkness are here in Kabasalan," Luna said. He said the village was used as headquarters by MILF chief Hashim Salamat.

The MILF accuse the government of launching the offensive to pressure them into accepting a peace deal ahead of upcoming talks in Malaysia.

"We regret the suffering of the civilian communities affected by the conflict, but this cannot be avoided if we wish to avert a larger evil in the future," presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Thursday. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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