MALACANANG, August 14, 2003 (STAR) Fugitive Indonesian bomber Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi is under the protection of a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander in Lanao del Norte, a government report alleged yesterday.

The report was relayed by Col. Roland Rodriguez, who heads an Army unit helping in the hunt. He said a document released by the Office of the President said Al-Ghozi was under the protection of MILF commander Salip Aloy Alsree.

"Intelligence report they (military) received had confirmed that Al-Ghozi is protected by a certain MILF commander named Salip Aloy Alsree," it added.

The manhunt intensified further as government troops figured in a brief clash with suspected coddlers of Al-Ghozi in Kabuntalan town in Maguindanao, forcing dozens of families to evacuate to safer ground.

Meanwhile, President Arroyo is set to fly to Kabuntalan today, where police and military operatives were hot on the trail of Al-Ghozi.

Speculations were rife that Al-Ghozi may be presented to the President in Kabuntalan, but Press Secretary Milton Alingod told The STAR last night there is no surprise program to present a recaptured Al-Ghozi. "She is going there to inaugurate several government projects."

In remarks before members of the diplomatic corps at the Palace, Mrs. Arroyo said the hunt for Al-Ghozi will continue until he is recaptured.

Army 6th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga said soldiers recovered two shoulder-fired rockets and a caliber .30 Garand rifle from the scene which the gunmen abandoned as they fled in haste.

"We are not targeting the MILF in Kabuntalan. We are only searching for Al-Ghozi," Senga pointed out.

The Kabuntalan encounter occurred as the MILF ceasefire committee has assured that guerrilla forces in the area would give way for the government troops in the hunt for Al-Ghozi.

Senga claimed they have been receiving feedback from sources in Kabuntalan, among them village officials, that Al-Ghozi has been spotted in the area.

Three unknown gunmen allegedly protecting Al-Ghozi were killed in a clash with the military in the area last weekend.

President Arroyo on Tuesday urged the MILF to help in the hunt and warned other armed groups against helping Al-Ghozi.

The MILF and the government are set to resume peace negotiations in Malaysia soon, but the rebels had warned that the presence of a huge number of troops in its areas could provoke clashes and affect the talks.

On the other hand, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the government allegation that they have Al-Ghozi.

"No, that’s not true," Kabalu said. "In fact, we have a standing order to arrest Al-Ghozi addressed to all our unit commanders in the area. The point is, even the military has not found Al-Ghozi in the area."

The report released by Malacañang was part of findings made by a joint government-MILF committee monitoring a Mindanao ceasefire.

Military officials earlier said Al-Ghozi had apparently evaded pursuing troops in Lanao and could be now in the nearby province of Maguindanao, also a known haunt of the MILF.

Kabalu said the MILF was prepared to resume talks with Manila, but said the military should be careful in issuing statements accusing it of harboring terrorists.

Wider Net

The President ordered yesterday a wider theater of operations in the hunt for Al-Ghozi.

Mrs. Arroyo disclosed a "wider" dragnet has been thrown around areas where Al-Ghozi was spotted in Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte and in Kabuntalan.

"The hunt against Al-Ghozi will go on until he is recaptured. A wider net has been spread and local officials and the communities have been alerted," she said. "We have the initiative and we will not stop."

In a report transmitted to Malacañang, presidential adviser on peace process and chief government negotiator Eduardo Ermita said the manhunt for Al-Ghozi was being closely coordinated with the joint government-MILF committee on the cessation of hostilities.

The same report identified Alsree as the protector of Al-Ghozi.

The report was contained in a four-page memorandum, dated Aug. 11, and signed by the six-man joint monitoring committee of the government representatives and the MILF.

Ermita furnished Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye a copy of the report after the joint monitoring committee met in Cotabato last Saturday to check on the involvement of Alsree.

Ermita said the memorandum contained the "report of the inspection teams that went to Lanao del Norte to check on the military operations against Al-Ghozi and remind the MILF elements not to get involved."

The six-man joint inspection team were led by Army Col. Romeo Calizo for the government side, and his counterpart Oshama Ali for the MILF.

Ali earlier rebutted the claim of the military that pending further verification, it could not be ascertained that Alsree was involved in coddling Al-Ghozi. Ali recommended that the team should first seek Alsree in the area.

Al-Ghozi escaped from a Manila jail last month, embarrassing the government and triggering a security alert in Southeast Asia.

He was serving a 17-year jail term for explosives possession. He had earlier admitted to plotting attacks against Western targets in Singapore as well as helping carry out bombings in Manila that left 22 dead in December 2000.

Government troops are conducting a manhunt in the Lanao region following the killing there last week of Abdulmukim Edris, one of two Abu Sayyaf suspects who escaped with Al-Ghozi last July 14. — Marichu Villanueva, John Unson, Lino de la Cruz, Bong Fabe, Benjie Villa, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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