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Rebels escape dragnet

Soldiers occupy deserted camp of ex-MILF leader

ZAMBOANGA CITY: Soldiers have occupied a Muslim rebel base in the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga Sibugay following days of intense fighting that killed and wounded dozens from both sides, officials said on Thursday.
The wanted rebels they were pursuing, however, escaped.

Officials said that soldiers had recovered an M60 machine gun left behind by rebels under the command of Waning Abdusalam, who was tagged as behind the spate of kidnappings and terrorist acts in the Mindanao region.

Despite the absence of Abdusalam and his group, military commanders insisted that the rebel leader had been wounded in the clash with security forces.

Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, commander of military forces in Mindanao, said that they had destroyed Abdusalam’s base after inspecting the area.

Most of the estimated 100 gunmen holed up in the remote camp have fled, although two of them have surrendered earlier, according to Philippine Army commander Lieutenant Gen. Arturo Ortiz.

The battle of Payao started on Monday after suspected rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) made a series of ambuscades against soldiers and policemen in Payao, Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte province and in Al-Barka, Basilan province, where 19 Army officers and soldiers were killed.

The target of the military operations was the group of Abdulsalam and 10 others who were wanted for murder, kidnapping and other crimes.

The others being pursued were Putot Jakaria, Ogis Jakaria, Talib Jail Indal, Datu Saramain Indal, Tareed Mangunda, Morsede Jalal, Harid Andaya, Pendatun Datukali, Mohmim Karim and Alnajer Sali.

“Yes, the camp of Commander Waning has been overrun,” Ortiz told reporters, referring to the alias of the gunmen’s alleged leader, who had been ordered arrested by a court to stand trial for kidnapping.

“There are reports that he fled with 40 of his men and that he had been wounded and unable to walk due to his injuries,” he said.

Soldiers were also searching for the arms cache reportedly hidden by rebels in the town’s marshlands during their escape.

“We have occupied Waning Abdusalam’s fortified structures and our focus right now is clearing the area of unexploded mines and searching the mangrove where it is reported that they hastily dumped their firearms. Efforts are also being exerted to locate the wounded criminals who may have slipped the cordon during the night,” Ferrer said.

Abdusalam was disowned by the MILF on Tuesday following deadly air strikes by military forces on a guerilla base in the remote Labatan village in Payao town.

According to Ferrer, Army troops are combing the rebel base for mines and other explosives planted by rebels and that a gravesite has been discovered, where the bodies of 15 rebels had been buried.

The military earlier said that two soldiers and six rebels were killed in the clashes, while 40 MILF gunmen and four Army troopers were wounded in three days of fighting in the area.
Despite the lack of reports about Abdusalam, other security officials said that he could still be in the town.

“We could not move freely (in the camp) since our EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal team) has to mark first the safe areas where we can pass through. The area is so [well-defended] and lined with mines that you have to admire the ground troops for their steadfast determination to regain the territory from the lawless group,” Ferrer said.

“The safe haven of kidnapping operations and terroristic activities in Zamboanga Sibugay has fallen. We have reestablished our authority in this part of Payao, and we owe it to the joint forces—our Army, Air Force, Navy and the police—who fought long and hard,” he added.

Brigadier Gen. Jose Mabanta Jr., Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for operations, meanwhile said that two soldiers and six gunmen were killed during the earlier stages of the operation against the camp, adding that they were verifying reports that 16 other gunmen had also died.

According to the civil defense office in Manila, four civilians were also killed in the area and another civilian was killed in Basilan, without saying who was responsible for the deaths.

Mabanta said that the military remained on high alert in the troubled areas for possible “spillover” of hostilities, including from the communist New People’s Army.

“We intend to finish this (operation) as soon as possible. We are now assaulting and hopefully by the end of the day, or at least tomorrow morning, we should declare victory,” Mabanta added.

“The instruction that the chief of staff has given commanders on the ground is do it as swift as possible,” he said. “Anyone can take advantage of this situation.”

For its part, the MILF protested the government attacks on its camp and accused the military of violating a fragile truce. The Muslim rebel group maintained that government offensives in Payao were directed at them following air strikes by the military on the 113th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces.

The fighting forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes for fear that they would be caught up in the crossfire or held hostage.

Cabinet members sent to Mindanao
President Benigno Aquino 3rd, meanwhile, ordered three members of his Cabinet to hold a Peace and Order Conference in Zamboanga Sibugay and Basilan.

According to Secretary Ricky Carandang of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, President Aquino on Wednesday had instructed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman to hold dialogues with local government and law enforcement officials and see for themselves the effects of the ongoing military and police operations.

“They are instructed to personally inspect what’s happening and report to the President their findings,” Carandang said.

“We just want to know what’s happening. We want to get the latest information on the ground to understand what’s happening. It’s one thing to hear about it when you’re here, it’s another when you’re there and actually see the results. They would like to get a first-hand look at how the operations are going,” he added.

The Palace official said that Mr. Aquino instructed Soliman to make sure that the needs of those displaced by the fighting were looked into.

DSWD helps
The Department of Social and Welfare Development (DSWD) continues to augment relief assistance to displaced families in the towns of Al-Barka in Basilan and Payao, Talusan, and Alicia in Zamboanga Sibugay—areas where government troopers launched a campaign against lawless elements.

“The government is handling the situation and the existing local Disaster Risk Reduction and Monitoring Councils are capable of responding to the needs of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs),” Secretary Soliman said in a statement.

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), 19,841 people from 30 barangays (village) have been affected by the armed encounter.

To date, the DSWD has released P935,000 worth of assistance for families who have fled their homes out of fear. Also, the DSWD-ARMM has provided P50,000 worth of relief aid.

Displaced families are currently sheltered in 13 evacuation centers, while those outside of these sought refuge with relatives and friends.

Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Rod Smith also on Thursday commended the commitments made by President Aquino and the MILF leadership to the peace process.

Being one of the largest foreign donors in conflict-affected Mindanao, the Australian government will continue supporting the region’s development, which can only be achieved through a peace accord, according to the Australian envoy.

“Both President Aquino and the leadership of the MILF have made it clear that the only way forward is the peace process,” Smith said in a statement.

“We hope that the leadership of President Aquino and the MILF Central Committee will see calm restored on the ground,” he added.

With reports from Jaime Pilapil, Ronald Alvarez and Bernice Camille V. Bauzon
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