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Villagers flee as troops fight Cotabato raiders

KIDAPAWAN CITY, Philippines– Hundreds of villagers in the southern province of North Cotabato fled their homes late Friday amid an offensive by government forces pursuing Moro rebels who raided the provincial jail.

Evacuees on Saturday said the affected villages were in parts of Kidapawan and the nearby town of Matalam.

Mortar shelling started Friday afternoon and continued until Saturday morning, said villagers from West Patadon in Matalam, who asked not to be named.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Ponce, spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, confirmed that an offensive was under way by Army and Philippine National Police (PNP) operatives against suspected members of the 108th base command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Members of the group were earlier reported to have blasted their way into the provincial jail in Kidapawan on Thursday dawn to rescue jail comrades.

A jail guard was killed and three others, including the jail warden, were injured during the attack.

Ponce said troops are also hunting four MILF commanders, former inmates at the Cotabato provincial jail who posted bail in early March and were suspected to have led the daring raid.

He identified the leader as Noel Pedtamanan who was arrested in Kabacan town in North Cotabato in March 2009 for motorcycle theft case, but posted bail afterward.

Pedtamanan, also known as Lastikman, is also involved in high-profile crimes, including kidnapping and drug trafficking, according to Ponce.

With Pedtamanan during the attack were Kamid Mangagta, Mong Balalay, and Alex Gani, who were also given temporary liberty after posting bail early March.

The attackers, however, failed to rescue the 12 high-risk inmates, including Mansuri Salic and Ibrahim Sacandal, when operatives of the 1202nd Cotabato Provincial Police Mobile Group deployed inside the compound responded with gunfire.

Ponce said the attack last Thursday was a clear indication the MILF leadership is “a lame duck because it could no longer control their field commanders."

But MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu refuted such allegation saying the attack was not sanctioned by its hierarchy.

There is also no truth to the report Pedtamanan was out to rescue Salic and other MILF members.

“As far as I know, Salic is the only MILF member locked there at the provincial jail. He is just a plain member, not a commander as earlier reported. We will follow the due course of law. There’s no plan, whatsoever, to rescue him," said Kabalu in a radio interview.

Kabalu said what he knew was that the attackers belong to a powerful clan in North Cotabato whose kin were arrested this year for several crimes.

Because of the raid, the Sangguniang Panglungsod (city council) of Kidapawan passed an urgent resolution that called for an immediate transfer of high-risk inmates from the provincial jail to a prison in Metro Manila, which is more secured.

“We don’t want a repeat of this bloody incident," said City Vice-Mayor Joseph Evangelista, the presiding chair of the council.

The attack last Thursday was the second bloody raid since 2007.

In February 2007, gunmen attacked the provincial jail and rescued 43 inmates, including high-risk suspects.

Only 12 escapees have been re-arrested. - GMANews.TV


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