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26 killed as MILF flee Lanao Norte towns–military

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Lieutenant colonel slain in fighting

By Joel Guinto, Thea Alberto
INQUIRER.net
First Posted 14:22:00 08/18/2008

MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE 4) An Army lieutenant colonel was among 26 persons — 23 civilians and three soldiers — killed in fighting triggered by attacks by fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Lanao del Norte province on Monday, officials said.

Two other soldiers were wounded.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) said some 7,000 individuals in the province were displaced and are now in various evacuation centers.

Lieutenant Colonel Angel Benitez was shot in the head when his convoy was ambushed by MILF fighters in front of an elementary school in Kolambugan town at 5:45 a.m., said Lieutenant Colonel Agane Adriatico, spokesman of the 1st Infantry Division.

He is the highest-ranked Army official to die in combat with Moro rebels in recent years, said Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner Jr.

“We grieve the loss of a very good officer. I know him personally. He is very competent. Nakakapanghinayang [It is a pity] for somebody to die at such an early age,” Army chief Lieutenant General Victor Ibrado said in a phone interview.

Ibrado said there have been no reported skirmishes since the rebels pulled out of Kolambugan town at around noon Monday.

“We can’t say that [the fighting] is over. Our troops are there, ready to secure the towns, and the coastal areas. We have instructions to pursue them,” he said.

The civilian casualties, mostly in Kolambugan town, were shot by the rebels as they retreated, said Brigadier General Hilario Atendido, chief of the counterterrorism unit Task Force Tabak operating in Central Mindanao.

“They [MILF] were using them [civilians] as human shields. They killed them on their way out. The description was they were killed like chickens. That’s the report from the civilians,” Atendido said in a phone interview.

The rebels suffered an undetermined number of casualties, he said.

The MILF has since retreated.

Earlier, Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome, PNP spokesman, said 21 people — 11 of them unidentified civilians, seven of them farmers, two more civilians identified as Ricardo Gil and Ricky Salidad, the rest either soldiers or government militiamen — had been killed in MILF raids in Lanao del Norte and in Saranggani province.

The Moro rebels, under the leadership of Commanders Bravo and Pangalian of the 102nd and 103rd brigade commands respectively, staged ambuscades in several towns in the two provinces, a week after the military flushed out their comrades under the command of Umbra Kato in North Cotabato province.

The MILF attacked five towns in Lanao del Norte province before dawn Monday, and occupied one of the five, Kolambugan.

“As early as 1 a.m. today [Monday], Maasim, Saranggani was attacked by armed elements of MILF followed by ambuscades in Lanao Norte municipalities,” Bartolome said in a press conference at Camp Crame national police headquarters.

The attacks prompted the military to launch offensives to drive back the rebels.

The rebels also killed two bus passengers and Police Officer 1 Dexter Salvacion.

In Kolambugan, the rebels burned a police patrol car and attacked the municipal police station and other government offices there, but were later flushed out during military operations, prompting the rebels to take 25 civilians and use them as human shields.

But Bartolome said that as of posting time, only 10 MILF hostages remained.

“The PNP [and] Armed Forces are doing our best to secure other areas in Lanao as well as other provinces affected by these movements by MILF personnel,” he said.

He said the Moro rebels left Kolambugan about noon, taking with them male hostages.

The rebels released their women and children hostages as they left, said Atendido.

“They left the area, that is the report from our ground troops,” Atendido said in a phone interview.

Asked what prompted the pullout, Atendido said: “They can’t stay there too long. They also felt the pressure from the military.”

Asked if all towns that were attacked by the MILF have been cleared, Atendido said: “As of now wala na [As of now, there’s no more].”

“But clearing operations are still ongoing in Kolambugan because we have received reports that some rebels have disguised themselves as civilians,” he said.

Earlier in the day, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the leadership has ordered its men to pull out from areas that they have occupied in Lanao del Norte, as the military launched offensives against the Muslim rebels, a spokesman for the MILF said.

“The MILF leadership ordered them to pullout, get out of the area,” MILF civil military affairs chief Eid Kabalu said in a phone interview Monday.

“We did not sanction this,” Kabalu said, referring to what he described as an “occupation” of Kolambugan and Kauswagan towns.

The military said the rebels attacked Kolambugan, Kauswagan, Maigo, Linamon, and portions of Iligan City.

Data from the PNP National Operations Center showed some 400 families evacuated to the Kauswagan Central Elementary School; around 1,300 individuals at the Iligan City National High School; at least 1,350 persons at Iligan City Central school; 750 persons in Buroo High School; another 700 people at Fuentes Gym, and 587 at Tunod Central Elementary School, Director Leopoldo Bataoil, PNP director for police community relations, said.

Bataoil said they are coordinating with local governments on caring for the evacuees.

Bartolome said all regional police offices and the Special Action Force in Mindanao will remain on full alert until the situation in the Lanao provinces has stabilized.

The PNP will also asses whether they need upgrade the alert status in other parts of the country.

Kabalu said the attack on the Lanao towns showed the rebels’ frustration over the pace of the peace negotiations.

View article as posted on INQUIRER.net

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Written by joelguinto

MonUTC2008-08-18T15:54:51+00:00UTC08bUTCMon, 18 Aug 2008 15:54:51 +0000 22, 2006 at 12:45 pm08

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