Pikit, North Cotabato, Feb. 15, 2003 -- Embattled guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are now on the run following the capture of a rebel stronghold by government forces yesterday after four days of intense fighting.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the rebels are now adopting hit-and-run tactics as he admitted they are helpless against the onslaught of government forces.

To counter the superiority of government troops, Kabalu said MILF fighters have been ordered to go mobile and attack military units as the need arises.

"We are still resisting," Kabalu said. "We moved to highly mobile guerrilla tactics."

He said MILF field commands broke up into small units and were given "full autonomy in making decisions in their respective areas of jurisdiction."

The fighting in the marshland area around Pikit since Tuesday has killed 175 people, including 161 MILF guerrillas and affiliated rebels, according to the military.

Reports said 7,765 families have been evacuated so far. Of the number, 4,202 families are from Pikit, 3,148 from Pagalugan and 415 from Pagagawan, both in Maguindanao.

The military said troops met little resistance as they moved into the 200-hectare Buliok complex, the joint enclave of the MILF and members of the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang.

Hundreds of MILF guerrillas in defensive positions have been sighted in a secluded area in Shariff Aguak and the Butilen area, another known lair of the kidnappers at the border of Kabuntalan and Datu Odin Sinsuat towns, both in Maguindanao.

Army spokesman Maj. Julieto Ando said joint Marine and Army troopers succeeded in breaking through two defense lines of the MILF around Buliok.

Soldiers are still "selectively" shelling key MILF positions surrounding the town from an artillery base here.

"But these shelling are less intense compared to the first two days of offensives against kidnappers and members of big criminal syndicates holding out in known territories of the MILF here," said Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, the Army’s 6th Infantry Division commander.

Senga said the troops have already occupied Kabasalan village, about 12 kilometers from Pikit.

The village was used as headquarters by MILF chief Hashim Salamat and also hosted members of the Pentagon Gang, which is on a US list of terrorist organizations.

Col. Cardozo Luna, head of the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade which captured the village, said it was the first time government troops entered Kabasalan since the beginning of the Muslim insurgency in the 1960s.

However, the military official did not say if it captured any rebels or alleged criminals but identified the rebel commander who defended Kabasalan as Sulaiman Ismud, a bomb expert trained in Afghanistan who was captured last year in Cotabato City but ordered released by a court.

Journalists covering the fighting said Kabasalan was deserted and its defenders appeared to have fled and scattered in the countryside.

"Our troops have practically secured all the objective areas in the Pikit side and we are moving also toward the same (MILF) areas in other towns," Senga said.

To highlight the capture of the rebel stronghold, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and Armed Forces chief Gen. Dionisio Santiago jointly led the hoisting of the Philippine flag in Kabasalan.

Reyes extolled the efforts of the soldiers in the effort of restoring government control in the area.

"We also ought to thank the soldiers, the enlisted men in the units who had sweat, shed blood in living up to their mandate of upholding law and order in this part of Mindanao," Reyes said.

Among the local officials who attended the flag raising ceremony yesterday were North Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piñol and Pikit Mayor Farida Malingco. (By John Unson, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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