Cotabato City, March 13, 2003 -- Military aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs on Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and pounded them with howitzers, killing 68 more guerrillas trying to retake their former enclave in Pikit, North Cotabato yesterday.

This developed as President Arroyo ordered the Armed Forces to undertake "active defense" against the MILF guerrillas after they were repulsed Monday in their mass assault on government positions around the Buliok complex in Pikit.

Maj. Julieto Ando, spokesman for the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said attack aircraft and gunships were used against the rebels harassing military positions.

Ando said local officials, including Muslim leaders, confirmed that 68 MILF rebels were killed during the aerial attacks.

One of those killed was Abu Nidal, a foreign-trained MILF commander, who was reportedly decapitated when a bomb landed near him and his followers.

"It appears they are aiming to regain control of their enclaves in Buliok complex that are now occupied by the military. But every time they attempt to approach our forces there, they are promptly repelled and driven back into the (nearby Liguasan) marsh," Ando said.

The military said several 500-pound bombs were dropped on the retreating rebels, whose escape routes were also bombarded by 105-mm. howitzers from Fort Pikit, a strategic hill at the town proper.

"The best way for these rebels to preserve their lives is to stop attacking the soldiers positioned in Buliok complex," Ando said.

"They (MILF) could never retake Buliok. The military will not give that up. (It) has been the symbol of their (MILF) defiance of the Philippine government," he said.

Ando said 34 rebels were also killed on Tuesday in Pikit's Kabasalan area after harassing a company-size Army contingent in the area.

In their bid to retake Buliok, MILF guerrillas began their attack early Monday against military forces occupying their former stronghold by blasting the area with mortars and rockets.

Armed Forces Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said they used attack planes and helicopter gunships in dispersing the MILF formations that halted the rebel offensive.

Alarmed by the developments, the President immediately called for a top-level meeting with her security advisers who arrived at a consensus to adopt an "active defense" policy against the MILF rebels.

Mrs. Arroyo said no less than leaders of Congress expressed their unconditional support to go after the MILF rebels in Pikit, short of having to declare an "all out war."

"Because I'm trying to build consensus... as a first step with those who are in charge of these specific policies...," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"So what we worked on is the minimum that we agreed on and as a minimum, the legislators today (yesterday) supported the policy of active defense (of the Armed Forces) which includes hot pursuit (operations)," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo explained the term "active defense" refers to the military's role in enforcing the law and running after lawless elements, as against a "defensive" posture which she claimed results in the military sustaining casualties.

"It's different from all out war and it's different from just parrying off those who (are) trying to attack their position," Mrs. Arroyo said.

At the same time, she deplored legislators' prolonged debates on the ongoing military campaign which she said only confused the military field commanders running after lawless elements in the region.

The President stressed the Armed Forces is authorized to go after the MILF, particularly to prevent them from regrouping and staging another mass attack.

The MILF has demanded from the government the complete pullout of troops and the return of Buliok complex to their control as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks.

The military earlier accused the MILF of harboring members of the kidnap-for-ransom Pentagon gang in Buliok complex when it staged the offensive last month.

The military also justified their offensive in Buliok claiming they managed to cut short an MILF training program for bombers.

This explains why many of those MILF bombers ended up as among the casualties in every bombing attack they make, Abaya said.

"They are not suicide bombers. It was due to premature detonation. Those bomber-victims did not finish their course," he said, matter-of-factly.

The 60-hectare complex in Pikit fell into government control last Feb. 13 after two weeks of heavy bombardment and ground offensive operations that left nearly 200 rebels dead and scores wounded.

Abaya said the occupation by the military of Buliok complex led to the discovery of documents that revealed the MILF were recruiting and training recruits for ambuscades, bombing and assassination techniques. (By John Unson, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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