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Airstrikes launched as conflict spreads to Basilan

Soldiers prepare for an assault on Moro National Liberation Front rebels as fires rage at a residential area in  Zamboanga City yesterday. AP  

MANILA, Philippines - Government troops fought forces of the Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on two fronts yesterday, with the rebels attacking Lamitan City in Basilan, killing a militiaman and wounding several others.

The military said some 200 gunmen from the combined forces of the MNLF, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the bandit Abu Sayyaf attacked sitio Burgos and Campo Dos, Barangay Colonia in Lamitan City
yesterday morning.

Nine soldiers were wounded, contrary to earlier reports that three soldiers were killed in the fighting.

“The three soldiers earlier reported to have been killed in the Lamitan City fighting are all alive. However, one of our militiamen was killed while another one was critically wounded,” said Col. Carlito Galvez, the Army’s 104th Brigade commander based in Basilan.

Galvez added three MNLF rebels were killed and seven others were injured.

Air Force Mg-520 attack helicopters helped in repulsing the attack by firing rockets on the armed group, forcing them to withdraw.

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“Firefight lasted for almost two hours and civilians have been evacuated to safer areas. The wounded soldiers are now undergoing treatment at the Lamitan City Hospital. Pursuit operation is still ongoing,” said Capt. Jefferson Somera, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.

Lamitan Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay said they had anticipated the possible attack from the forces allied with MNLF founder Nur Misuari.

“It was just fortunate we have imposed security measures meant to prevent them from getting through the center of Lamitan right after the hostilities in Zamboanga City broke out. Our security forces have been prepared as we have received information on the ground,” Furigay said.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Mujiv Hataman said the assault was repulsed. Authorities said earlier they were monitoring the movement of rebel forces in Basilan, and Hataman said that residents had already evacuated Wednesday.

The military said a battalion of troops was deployed to Lamitan to augment the Army Scout Rangers on reports that some 200 armed men were spotted just outside the city.

The island province of Basilan is a boat ride away from Zamboanga City, where a faction of the MNLF identified with Misuari have been holding more than 100 hostages since Monday, when government troops repulsed their attempt to raise a rebel flag at city hall.

The four-day crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most flights and ferry services suspended.

The fighting has left seven dead and 44 others wounded, 21 of them civilians.

Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Aside from the four coastal barangays Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Mariqui and Sta. Catalina where the MNLF rebels led by Habier Malik made a landing in the morning of Sept. 8, the rebels have spread to at least two nearby areas in the city while engaging government troops closing in on their positions.

MNLF gunmen in Barangay Sta. Barbara in Zamboanga City reportedly opened fire on troops on Wednesday, killing Army Pfc. Julmain Abdullahid, an MNLF integree. Two other soldiers were wounded in the sporadic fighting that ensued.

Earlier, policemen engaged MNLF gunmen in a firefight at barangay Canelar, killing three rebels and arresting another. Another firefight with policemen and government troops broke out in nearby barangay San Roque.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr. said the military is supporting the police in containing the rebels in law enforcement operations.

“Our troops were also deployed in various government and other vital installations in the city,” Tutaan said.

He said the military is not taking aggressive action and is only employing a calibrated response against the rebels as the crisis management committee is trying to resolve the standoff peacefully.

 

Spillover feared

 

Military sources also revealed the MNLF is deploying its fighters in the Lanao provinces, raising fears of a spillover of the ongoing Zamboanga city standoff to other areas in mainland Mindanao. –Delon Porcalla, Roel Pareño, John Unson, Ramil Bajo, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Danny Dangcalan, AP

 

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