Sun, Nov 21, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Philippines strike hard against kidnappers

CLAMPDOWN Officials say air strikes on a southern Philppine island were not aimed at Muslim rebels, while Indonesian police seized foreign sailors with weapons

AGENCIES , MANILA AND JAKARTA

Indonesian police display weapons seized from Australian Christopher Packer from his boat by the Bali police on Friday. The weapons and 1,000 bullets were found in Packer's boat, without legal documentation.

PHOTO: EPA

Air strikes by Philippine security forces that forced hundreds of people to evacuate the southern island of Mindanao were aimed at kidnap gangs and not at Muslim rebels who have a base there, officials said yesterday.

But security forces and rebels both said the incident would not hit talks to end a Muslim rebellion that has killed more than 120,000 people in the southern Philippines since the late 1960s.

Major-General Raul Rellano, the army commander in the central region of Mindanao, said government troops launched offensives in the province of Maguindanao to target the al-Qaeda-linked militant Abu Sayyaf group led by Isnilon Hapilon.

"The air strikes were not directed against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)," Rellano said in a radio interview.

"The attack was a simple police action to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf and kidnap-for-ransom gangs in the area," he said.

A spokesman for the largest Muslim separatist rebel group accused the military of using the Abu Sayyaf and kidnap gangs as a "convenient excuse" to hit MILF communities, but vowed to carry on the talks.

"We will raise this issue in the ceasefire panel meeting next week in Pagadian," Eid Kabalu said by telephone. The army informed the rebels of the attack just as the bomb runs neared their end, he said.

"There are existing mechanisms to address this kind of problem," he said.

"We will not allow minor incidents to waste the gains we have worked for under the peace process," he said.

Kabalu said hundreds of residents of the farming community of Datu Saudi Ampatuan fled to avoid the crossfire. One rebel was hurt and several houses destroyed in Friday's attack.

Malaysia has been brokering the peace talks since March 2001. About 50 Malaysian soldiers and 10 from Brunei were deployed last month in five areas in Mindanao to deter both sides from breaking a 16-month-old truce.

A team of peace monitors led by a Malaysian general joined the ceasefire panels from government and MILF investigating the areas hit by the air strikes yesterday, checking the condition of displaced residents.

Formal negotiations are expected to resume within the year in Kuala Lumpur.

Meanwhile, Indonesian police yesterday were questioning five foreign sailors after seizing guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition from a boat off the tourist island of Bali, a spokesman said.

The crew -- three New Zealanders, an Italian, and the ship's Australian captain -- were picked up on Friday from a boat near the island's western coast, Colonel Anthonius Reniban said.

However, a New Zealand foreign ministry spokesman said only one New Zealand national was among those being questioned. The source of the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

The crew had been sailing around the vast Indonesian archipelago on the New Zealand-flagged boat Lisa for several weeks, and had stopped at three ports in the eastern part of the country, Reniban said.

It wasn't immediately clear what type of boat was involved.

Reniban said that even if the weapons -- four hand guns and four rifles -- were for self-defense, the men could face criminal charges. Officers seized more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition, he said.

Pirate attacks are common in Indonesian waters and most sailors carry firearms for self-defense.

However, Indonesia has several regions wracked by separatist insurgencies, as well as ethnic and religious conflicts, and authorities keep a close lookout for weapons smugglers.

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