MILF AMUCK; ATTACKS POWER BARGE, PYLONS  

Cotabato City, Feb. 17, 2003 -- Suspected Moro islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels opened fire with rocket-propelled grenade on a power barge of the state-run National Power Corporation (NPC) and toppled several steel pylons in the southern Philippines, the military said Monday.

The military said guerrillas tried to blow up the power barge off Maco town in Compostela province over the weekend. The blast caused little damage to the barge, fortified by steel plates, the military said.

Southern Philippine military commander Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said MILF forces also bombed over the weekend power pylons in the village of Luna in Carmen town in North Cotabato province.

"The rebels are now resorting to destruction of vital government installation to divert military operation against the kidnappers and terrorists and bombers," Abaya told reporters at a news conference Monday.

A regional Army spokesman Major Julieto Ando said MILF rebels have bombed at least five NPC steel pylones in Maguindanao and North Cotabato since last week.

"We are guarding other areas where there are power lines and communication facilities because these are targets of attacks by terrorists," Ando said.

MILF rebels also attacked with small rockets a Philippine Marines base Sunday in Nituan village in Maguindanao's Parang town, wounding four soldiers.

The rebels fired small rockets towards the headquarters of the 1st Marine Brigade, the military said. 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.

Abaya said soldiers have set-up command posts in Boliok. "We are still in hightened alert. The threats are still there," he said.

Hundreds of troops flushed out Saturday the MILF rebels and members of the Pentagon kidnap gang from Boliok Complex that straddles from Maguindanao province to the jungles of North Cotabato.

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 since Tuesday when fighting brok eout.

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 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 has put at risk the peace talks between the government and MILF.

Manila had opened talks with rebel leaders, but suspended this in 2001 after the military implicated the MILF in kidnappings of mostly foreigners and in the series of terrorist acts 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 reach," Kabalu said.

However, 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. 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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