The Philippine president authorized the military yesterday to use aerial and artillery attacks on "embedded terrorist cells" that she blamed for recent bombings and other attacks in the southern Mindanao region.
In a live television address just hours before leaving for a state visit to the US, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said local governments had been warned of possible reprisal attacks for the crackdown and relief agencies were on alert for a possible surge in evacuees.
"Today I authorize the Armed Forces of the Philippines to employ selective aerial and artillery attacks to dislodge embedded terrorist cells that have attacked hapless civilian communities and murdered scores of innocent Filipinos in Mindanao," Arroyo said.
"We've decided to use extraordinary punitive force not merely in view of tactical necessity, but to signify the determination of government to bring terrorists to justice."
A rash of bombings and other attacks in the south, home to a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency, has left more than 210 people dead so far this year.
"We've seen that terrorism strikes anywhere, anytime, from the remotest barangays (villages) in Mindanao to the capitals of the world. The world in the post-Iraq war period has achieved greater strategic stability, but this has driven militant cells to deeper desperation," Arroyo said.
"Our country has been under terrorist attack, sporadic, intermittent, but nevertheless deadly. We must fight back now or face greater peril in the future."
Referring to the deaths of three Filipinos in Monday's bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, she added: "All Filipinos must be vigilant wherever they are."
Arroyo spoke of a "holistic" campaign encompassing political, diplomatic, military, cultural, economic, humanitarian and information aspects.
"This is not simply a war of guns and bullets. Its a strategic war of will and vision," she said. "We will nurture the seeds of a principled secure and enduring peace."
Arroyo did not specifically name any group that will be targeted.
The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for beheadings, kidnappings and other attacks, operates in the south and is to be the target of a six-month counterterrorism training exercises by US forces that could start as early as next month.
The group is on the US list of terrorist organizations, and Philippine officials have threatened to have the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), blamed for the most recent attacks, placed on that list. Government troops are also battling communist guerrillas and a hodgepodge of bandit and kidnap gangs.
Arroyo's administration has warned the MILF to renounce terrorism and surrender rebels responsible for deadly attacks by June.
The MILF has denied any terrorist links, and has said it would fight fiercely if the government cracked down.
Arroyo will be the guest of honor at a state dinner Monday in Washington by President George W. Bush. She is expected to seek an increase in US military aid. One of the staunchest US allies, the Philippines is getting more than US$100 million this fiscal year.