MINDANAO BATTLE: 138 MILF DEAD IN 3 DAYS

Cotabato City, Feb. 14, 2003 -- Philippine military officials on Thursday said at least 138 separatist Muslim rebels were killed by troopsin3 days of fierce fighting in central Mindanao.

Major Julieto Ando, spokesman of the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said the death toll could still increase assporadic clashes continued Thursday inthe provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, all stronghold of theMoro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels whose group is tied to al Qaeda.

Ando said only three soldiers have been killed and 24 wounded in three days of fierce fighting. "It's now 138and the death toll on the enemy side is steadilyincreasing," he told reporters.

The military said guerrillas have freed dozens of villagers in Tinumigis village in Sultan Kudarat's Lambayong town and Bual village in Tulunan town in North Cotabato they earlier took hostage and used as shield against pursuing security forces.

Most of those taken captives were Christian farmers, said Sultan Kudarat Gov. Datu Pax Mangandadatu. "There were civilians also killed Lambayaong, but the rebels have already released the hostages, at least 40 of them," he said.

More than 30,000 people have fled their homes in the provinces because of the fighting, Ando said. "Mostof therefugees are now housed in different evacuation centers in safe areas in Maguindanao and North Cotabato," he said.

Social wokers said two children have so far died in one refugee camp on Wednesday because of diseases, which are now threatening other evacuees.

Ando said troops were trying tooccupy a huge MILF camp in North Cotabato, wheremembers of the kidnapgroup called Pentagon Gang are believed to be hiding. "That is our main objective for now...to get the rebel encampment used as a springboard for terror attacks," he said. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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