MILF FIGHTS BACK, ATTACKS MARINES IN MAGUINDANAO  

Zamboanga City, Feb. 16, 2003 -- Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces attacked with small rockets a military base Sunday in Mindanao island, wounding at least 4 soldiers, officials said.

Officials said the rebels attacked with anti-tank rockets the headquarters of the First Marine Brigade in the village of Nituan in Maguindanao's Parang town, wounding the soldiers. Theextent of the damage was unknown, but troops retaliated killing a still undetermined of gunmen.

It was the first major attack by guerrillas after the military captured Saturday a sprawling MILF camp in the hinterlands of Boliok near Maguindanao, scene of five days of fierce fighting that left more than 200 gunmen dead and wounded.

The military said the rebel camp was used as hideout by Muslim rebels and kidnappers in the southern Philippines.

Southern Commandchief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya on Sunday said soldiers were still in Boliok and have set-up command post there.He said the military remain in red alert status because of threats of more attacks by lawless groups.

"We are still in hightened alert. The threats are still there," Abaya said.

Abaya said hundreds of troops flushed out Saturday Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces and members of the Pentagon kidnap gang from Boliok Complex that straddles fromMaguindanao province to the jungles of North Cotabato.

"We are now in control of the complex. We have flushed out the rebels,terrorists and kidnappers and lawless groups," he said.

"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," Abaya said.

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. "This is the victory of the people," Abaya said.

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

The military did not say if there were bodies recovered, but the latest death toll put the casualties of the MILF at more than 160 with dozens of fighters wounded. Three soldiers were also killed and 43 wounded wounded since Tuesday when fighting broke out.

A rebel 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 have 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 gun battles.

Kabalu said his group would not pull out from the talks despite the fighting.

"We will pursue the talks until a peace deal is reached," Kabalu said.

The MILF has insisted it will not sign any peace agreement unless the government grants 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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