DAVAO CITY -- Hundreds of troops, backed by assault helicopters, launched offensives on two strongholds of a breakaway Moro rebel group that attacked 14 military camps and outposts in Mindanao, officials said Thursday.
The brazen attacks since Sunday left at least four soldiers dead including one who was beheaded, while at least two rebels were killed in the counteroffensive, according to the government.
But a regional army spokesman, Colonel Prudencio Asto, said the rebel death toll had reached 15 by Thursday, citing intelligence reports. This could not be independently confirmed.
The rebel group broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is involved in peace talks with the government.
Known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), the group opposes the negotiations, and has vowed to continue fighting for an independent homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The group's leader Ameril Umbra Kato had a stroke in November, plunging his group into uncertainty, but the renewed fighting indicates he still has firepower.
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) Governor Mujiv Hataman said the military and police have strengthened security in public areas in a five-province region that he heads to prevent diversionary attacks like bombings from Kato's fighters.
"We cannot allow any group to carry out brazen attacks and get away with it," Hataman said.
Troops were moving cautiously to avoid widespread disruptions amid the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, he said.
More than 25,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, according to the Office of Civil Defense.
The fighting this week is among the worst since 2008, when the peace talks bogged down, igniting clashes between MILF forces and government troops in Maguindanao and outlying provinces. That fighting killed hundreds and displaced 750,000 people before the two sides agreed to a ceasefire.
The government said the attacks by Kato's forces on 14 military camps, detachments and outposts were meant to derail its negotiations with MILF, which are being brokered by Malaysia. Still, the talks resumed in Malaysia Wednesday.
Military officials said army assaults were focused on a vast marshland and two abandoned villages in Maguindanao's Datu Unsay town where the breakaway rebels have taken position.
Army troops, backed by artillery and tank fire, have advanced slowly in areas rigged with booby traps.
A key Maguindanao highway, which was closed down after rebel sniper fire killed two passing commuters earlier in the week, was briefly reopened and then shut again Thursday due to lingering threats, regional deputy military commander Romeo Santiago Nebres said.
Pursuit operations also continued Thursday in nearby Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, one of the five Moro-dominated provinces comprising the Armm, after heavily armed men opened fire on an Army patrol inside the sprawling Mindanao State University, killing three soldiers and a 10-year-old boy, and wounding 20 students.
Colonel Daniel Lucero, chief of the Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade in Marawi City, said the soldiers were responding to indiscriminate rifle shots inside the 433-hectare campus when attacked by armed men believed to be involved in illegal drugs activity inside the campus Wednesday evening.
Reports released by the office of Governor Hataman said that close to 20 students have been hit in crossfire between soldiers and the gang of suspected criminal syndicate.
The attack happened around 9 p.m. Wednesday, Marawi Mayor Fahad Salic said over a television report on Thursday. He said the boy, who was inside a house, was killed probably by a stray bullet.
Lucero identified the gang leader as Otik Gamal, who has about 20 followers, mostly relatives of the city mayor, according to sources quoted by the Army officer.
"The university is closed right now. None can enter nor leave the campus. Students are scared, rifles are fired inside the campus," Lucero said in Filipino.
Hataman quickly dispelled rumors that the campus attack is related to the ongoing skirmishes between government forces and Islamic rebel forces in Central Mindanao.
"Last night's attack to a contingent of the military conducting mobile patrol in Mindanao State University in Marawi City was perpetrated by lawless elements. Security and law enforcement operations are ongoing. We also support all efforts to curb the ongoing drug syndicate inside the MSU campus," Hataman said.
He said the regional government will definitely flex its muscles "to clamp down these people who use the academic institution as a haven of their illegal business while destroying lives of our people."
"There is no truth to the information circulating on Twitter, Facebook and social media which alleged that war has allegedly broken out in Mindanao. Please refrain from sharing and posting similar information so as not to cause due panic," the governor added.
Hataman assured that the military, in cooperation with the local police and other civilian authorities, is addressing the sporadic encounters in Maguindanao province.
SunStar.Com.Ph | August 9, 2012 | Article Link