Mon, Aug 13, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Manila prepares southern offense

READY, AIM ... Philippine President Gloria Arroyo moved army headquarters to Zamboanga as plans for the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf group firmed


The Philippine defense secretary and top military generals flew to the volatile south yesterday, meeting commanders set to launch a new offensive against Muslim insurgents who killed 25 soldiers in a day of fighting last week.

Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen and guerrillas from the bigger Moro National Liberation Front inflicted those losses -- the largest single-day government troop loss in recent years -- in a road ambush and ensuing gunbattle on southern Jolo island on Thursday. At least 27 insurgents also died.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, already enraged by Muslim insurgents' beheading of 10 marines on nearby Basilan Island last month, took the unprecedented step of temporarily moving the army headquarters from Manila to southern Zamboanga City on Saturday.

The move brings the army's commander, Lieutenant General Romeo Tolentino, to the front lines of looming offensives on Jolo and Basilan.

The heavy losses and beheadings have rattled the military and shattered months of relative tranquility on both predominantly Muslim islands, where the Abu Sayyaf, the MNLF and the country's largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have waged protracted guerrilla-style insurrections for years.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, who assumed his post on Wednesday, flew to Jolo with military chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon and Tolentino, meeting commanders behind closed doors in a fortified military camp to assess last week's clashes and to brace troops for a new battle against Muslim insurgents, said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro.

They were to fly later to Basilan to meet army and marine commanders there, Bacarro said.

Tolentino acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the decades-long Muslim guerrilla rebellion in the south.

A major military dilemma is how to enforce Arroyo's order to hunt down and decimate the Abu Sayyaf -- a group blamed for deadly bombings and high-profile ransom kidnappings -- without antagonizing the MNLF, which signed a 1996 peace accord with the government, and the MILF, which has made a truce with troops while engaging in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with Manila.

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