Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Philippine army captures rebel post

COMBAT A series of clashes have taken place between the Philippine army and followers of the Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari, with Valentine's Day bombings, too

AP , JOLO

Philippine soldiers captured a key jungle stronghold of Muslim rebels, ousting defenders blamed for recent attacks on an army post and bombings in Manila and two other cities, military officials said yesterday.

Lieutenant General Alberto Braganza, commander of the military's Southern Command, was to fly by helicopter with other military officials to Bitan-ag, the hilly complex near Panamao town that hundreds of troops wrested from armed followers of jailed Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari after days of fierce gunbattles.

Philippine Army Captain Abdurasad Sirajan, spokesman for an anti-terrorist military task force, told reporters that "the entire Bitan-ag camp has been fully captured."

All of the fewer than 100 gunmen fled in small groups toward Jolo's mountainous center as the military moved in. Soldiers would pursue the gunmen, who are led by local religious leader Habier Malik, the military said.

After suffering heavy casualties in the clashes, military officials brimmed with pride over the rebel camp's capture.

"They can't win over the government, whatever their lawless desire is," Southern Command chief of staff Colonel Domingo Tutaan said.

About 3,000 soldiers and marines have been pursuing Misuari's followers -- backed by guerrillas of the Abu Sayyaf group -- since they attacked an army detachment in Panamao on Feb. 7, provoking clashes that killed 27 soldiers and wounded 72 others. Troops have killed 37 gunmen and wounded scores of others, the military said.

The rebel attacks were apparently a retaliation for the death of a number of people, including a child, who were caught in a crossfire when troops assaulted a community of Misuari's followers while pursuing suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. The military has acknowledged the child was accidentally hit in an army assault.

Abu Sayyaf -- blamed for numerous kidnappings in the southern Philippines -- claimed responsibility for bombings Monday in Manila's financial district and the southern cities of General Santos and Davao which killed seven people and wounded at least 123, apparently to divert the military's attention and ease the pressure on the beleaguered gunmen on Jolo, the military said.

Despite the bomb attacks, President Gloria Arroyo said Tuesday that the military assaults on Jolo would continue. She vowed to crush the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf.

"The desperation of the enemy cannot be underestimated, even as it lies in the throes of defeat," Arroyo said. "More than ever, we must not pull back but move forward to wipe out the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf."

Security forces were placed on full alert nationwide to thwart more bombings.

Misuari formerly headed the Moro National Liberation Front, a large Muslim separatist group that accepted limited autonomy and signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.

But violence reignited years later and Misuari was imprisoned near Manila on charges of rebellion. Many of his armed followers have peacefully settled in Jolo but have been periodically accused of coddling Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

From his mountain lair protected by dense jungle, Haber Malik, leader of the Muslim rebellion on remote Jolo island in the southern Philippines, made an impassioned plea recently for support.

In a tape recorded message Malik, who heads one of the many factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), called on fellow Muslims to unify against "abuses" by troops cracking down on militants in the Sulu archipelago, where Jolo is located.

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