Camp Aguinaldo, Q.C., Feb. 27, 2003 -- The government has suffered another setback in its war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), losing five more soldiers when secessionist rebels ambushed military reinforcement in Zamboanga Sibugay province last Tuesday night.

The ambush happened while the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was supposed to be on red alert in Mindanao due to continued skirmishes with the secessionist group, particularly in the central part of the conflict-torn region.

Reports reaching Camp Aguinaldo also said three other soldiers were wounded when an undetermined number of heavily-armed MILF guerrillas fired at the military convoy in Tungawan town.

Wounded were Corporals Celso Tubil and Ronie Agabe, and Pfc. Abdurajak Sapari. The military, however, did not identify the slain soldiers pending notification of their families.

The reports said the military convoy, composed of two trucks and a Kennedy jeep, was on its way to reinforce elements of the Army's 33rd Infantry Battalion (IB) whose detachment was being harassed by the MILF rebels in Barangay Timbabawan also in Tungawan.

At 11:45 p.m., some 15 MILF rebels fired upon the reinforcing military convoy led by a certain 1Lt. Cabahug, leading to the death of five soldiers and wounding of the three. The military troops managed to engage the ambushers into a 30-minute firefight before the MILF withdrew toward different directions.

Military reports tagged unidentified armed men as behind the latest ambush but MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu immediately claimed respon-sibility for the incident.

"This is the only way to counter the all-out offensive of the AFP," Kabalu said, boasting that eight soldiers were actually killed during the ambush.

Kabalu also said the attack was part of MILF chief Hashim Salamat's call for all armed Moslem fighters to wage war against the military.

Earlier, Kabalu said MILF fighters would adopt guerrilla tactics in continuously waging war against government forces in Mindanao region.

In Maguindanao, elements of the 75th IB led by one M/Sgt. Ragadio, while on combat patrol, clashed with estimated 30 MILF guerrillas along Sitio Kanungcongan in Barangay Upper Minabay, Buldon town.

The encounter, which lasted for four hours, resulted in the wounding of two MILF rebels. The military, however, lost a two Bolt assembly for M-14 rifle and an upper receiver for M-16 rifle was destroyed.

Close-air support was immediately dispatched to augment pursuing military troops.

Only on Monday, MILF rebels almost simultaneously staged a series of attacks against private and govern-ment targets in Central Mindanao where they waylaid two security guards of a logging firm, burned a passenger bus and bombed another National Power Corp. tower.

Since the fall of the Buliok complex, the MILF rebels have carried out a series of retaliatory actions such as the toppling of power lines and attacks on soldiers and civilians that have claimed dozens of lives.

The violence has also cast a shadow on the prospect of renewed peace negotiations between the MILF and the government which were originally scheduled to be held in Malaysia this year.

The MILF yesterday said it wanted to end three decades of violence but would talk peace only through Malaysian mediators until Manila withdrew troops from a guerrilla stronghold.

The President has approved the draft of a new peace plan and Malaysia is brokering the negotiations, but the MILF said it will not resume direct talks with Manila until troops are withdrawn from its stronghold in Cotabato province.

"All communications in the meantime must be coursed through the mediating country Malaysia," MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar told local television. "The MILF has never abandoned a peaceful solution to the problem in Mindanao."

The MILF the biggest of four groups fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country has held sporadic talks with the government aimed at ending violence that has killed 120,000 people since 1972.

Tension is running high in parts of Mindanao with as many of the nearly 40,000 villagers who fled the fierce clashes in Cotabato have refused to return to their homes. (By Mario J. Mallari, Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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