7 CAPTURED SOLDIERS SAFE MILF LEADER   

Lanao del Norte, March 7, 2003 -- Leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) today assured that 7 soldiers in their custody were "alive, safe and were being taken care of", a day after they were captured in a clash with government troops.

"They are with me now. Since they are POWs (prisoners of war), they are safe. They are alive. No one will behead them," said Commander Bravo, the leader of a band of MILF rebels that captured seven soldiers in a firefight in Lanao del Norte Thursday.

The MILF commander said over GMA 7's "Unang Balita" that the captives were brought to an MILF camp in Lanao del Norte where they await instructions from their "chief of staff Al Hadj Murad."

Later in the same news program, Al Hadj confirmed Commander Bravo's statements and said: "That is correct. We are abiding by the provisions on POWs as provided under the Geneva Convention. I gave instructions to them not to hurt the soldiers."

At the same time Al Hadj maintained that the MILF had nothing to do with the bombing in Davao City last Tuesday where at least 23 were killed and scores were injured.

"Our position is clear. We have nothing to do with the bombing (in Davao). Our target is not the civilians but the military," Al Hadj said, unfazed by government allegations that the MILF was behind the blast.

"That is always expected. Everything that is happening in Mindanao, especially now with the outbreak of hostilities between the MILF and the government," Al Hadj said, referring to the spate of violence in the region over the last two weeks that has also resulted in civilian casualties and massive displacements.

He dismissed claims by military and defense officials that the alleged MILF rebel who died in the Davao blast had caused the carnage.

"Granting he was a member of the MILF, it did not mean that he was responsible for the bombing. It is surprising that most of his injuries were on the head when he was supposed to be the bomber," Al Hadj said.

He said it was ironic that the government continued to ignore other groups that could be involved, referring to the Abu Sayyaf bandits that claimed responsibility for the blast.

Then, Al Hadj said, it was also possible that government was trying justifying the extension of the Balikatan military exercises with the United States.

"All these have to be investigated. Government should not release findings without the corresponding evidence," Al Hadj said.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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