Cotabato City, Feb. 16, 2003 -- Philippine soldiers yesterday finally occupied a mountain range used as hideout by Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines, after five days of fierce fighting that left more than 200 gunmen dead and wounded, officials said. Three soldiers were also killed and 43 wounded wounded since Tuesday when fighting brokeout.

Southern Philippines military chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said hundreds of troops have flushed out Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces and members of the Pentagon kidnap gang from Boliok Complex that straddles Maguindanao province and the jungles of North Cotabato.

"This is the victory of the people," Abaya told reporters. "We are now in control of the complex. We have flushed out the rebels, terrorists and kidnappers and lawless groups."

Abaya added that "Soldiers are now conducting a massive clearing operation and they are searching for bodies, weapons and booby traps, but military operation still continue against lawless elements in other areas."

Hundreds of guerrillas have retreated from Boliok Complex after troops pushed them out of their jungle hideouts and into the open, giving security forces an advantage to mount fresh attacks Saturday.

Troops also seized a rebel camp Friday in Kabasalan near Pikit town in North Cotabato province, Abaya said.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said only 40 fighters were killed and six others injured in the five days of skirmishes in central Mindanao, a known stronghold of the separatist rebel group linked by Western intelligence to Osama bin Laden.

The military has mobilized more than 5,000 soldiers, backed by tanks and choppers, to capture the rebel camps. Government bomber planes also bombed the complex, which the military said was chiefly used as springboard for terror attacks against government and civilian targets.

The fighting have put at risk the peace talks between the government and MILF. Manila has opened talks with rebel leaders, but suspended this in 2001 after the military implicated the MILF in kidnappings of mostly foreigners and the series of terrorism in the southern Philippines.

Both sides have signed a truce agreement, but this has been violated many times with military and MILF accusing each other of starting the skirmishes. The MILF has repeatedly accused the military of encroaching into their territories, triggering gunbbatles.

Kabalu said his group would not pull out from the talks despite the fighting. "We will pursue the talks until a peace deal is reach," Kabalu said.

The MILF has insisted it will not sign any peace agreement unless the government grant them independence in Mindanao. Government peace negotiators said the rebel demand would violate the Constitution and that they will not allow the Philippines to be dismembered, but officials have offered the MILF autonomy in several areas they control. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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