Zamboanga City, April 25, 2003 -- Four civilians were killed and 10 others wounded when at least 500 secessionist rebels launched attacks in Lanao del Norte early Thursday and at least 50 rebels staged an ambush in North Cotabato on Wednesday.

Col. Ernesto Boac, 401st Infantry Brigade commander, said the guerrillas under MILF leader Muksa Datu raided the army posts in Kolambugan town around 5:30 a.m. and then blew up a bridge in Maigo town, Lanao del Norte.

He said the rebels set up a blockade on the highway near Maigo and then strafed a Super Five Rural Transit Bus, killing its driver and wounding 10 passengers.

However, a military report quoted witnesses and officials as saying that 11 passengers along with the driver were killed.

"The rebels strafed the passenger bus when the driver ignored the blockade," the report said.

It was the most serious atrocity committed by rebels in the southern Philippines since February, when troops overran an MILF camp at Mount Buliok Complex in Pikit town, North Cotabato.

Boac said MILF forces also flagged down several buses in the village of Kulasian in Kolambugan but it was unknown if they took some of the passengers as hostages.

"We are awaiting reports from the field. There is fighting going on in the area," Boac said.

Police and the military, using two attack helicopters and four armored personnel carriers, engaged the rebels in a firefight, witnesses said. There were no reports of casualties.

"The two towns were cleared around 10:40 a.m. and the highway was opened to traffic," Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero, AFP spokesman said.

Chief Supt. Acmad Omar, ARMM police chief, said he has ordered police forces to beef up security in many areas in the provinces.

Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesman, said the latest attack was part of the movement's "continuing active defense against military forces."

"There was a blockade (on the highway) because we don't want civilians to pass until we finished our operations," he said in a phone interview.

Kabalu, however, denied it was the MILF which strafed the passenger bus.

He said their ongoing offensive is limited only to military and police targets.

In North Cotabato, Jimmy Villaber, a village chieftain, and militiamen Dionisio Villaber and Edgar Lagote were killed in an ambush by MILF rebels Wednesday noon in Ranzo village in the town of Carmen.

Military reports said the victims were on their way to Poblacion village when waylaid by at least 50 rebels led by one Commander Uton Jamilil, commander of the 7th Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces.

President Arroyo ordered the AFP and PNP to ensure that peace and order prevails in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato.

Gen. Narciso Abaya, Armed Forces chief, said the military received reports that the rebels have been extorting money from local officials in exchange for not disrupting the Palarong Pambansa.

He said he would discuss with Philippine Sports Commission chairman Eric Buhain if the Palaro should push through.

Ignacio Bunye, presidential spokesman, said government is not at fault if there is little progress in the peace talks with the MILF.

"The government panel would like to meet with their counterparts but it seems that the time is not conducive as far as the other side is concerned. But at any rate we would like to reiterate the policy of government which is also to pursue another avenue, and this is through localized peace talks," he said.(Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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