Lanao del Norte burns
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - August 19, 2008 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Rampaging Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels killed 33 people, including an Army lieutenant colonel, and wounded several others after coordinated attacks in five towns in Lanao del Norte and in Maasim, Sarangani yesterday morning.

Maj. Gen. Hilario Atendido, chief of the anti-terrorist Task Force Tabak, said the fatalities included Lt. Col. Angelo Benitez, executive officer of the Army’s 102nd Infantry Brigade, and three other soldiers when their vehicle was ambushed in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte.

He said seven other civilians were among the fatalities in Kolambugan.

Atendido said the rebels killed 16 in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte. The victims included seven farmers who were shot and hacked to death and a policeman identified as Police Officer 1 Dexter Salvacion.

Four other members of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit (Cafgu) were also killed in Kauswagan.

Two persons were killed in Maasim, Sarangani when the guerrillas indiscriminately fired at the local public market and nearby buildings. The rebels tried to burn the market but they were forced to withdraw by responding policemen.

The Lanao del Norte towns of Linamon, Bacolod and Maigo were also raided before dawn, the residents shot at and several houses and buildings burned. The rebels also reportedly took several hostages and attacked passenger buses that passed through their checkpoints along the highway. 

Raffy Magbanua, information manager of the state-owned National Transmission Corp. (Transco), said unidentified men believed to be rebels also bombed and toppled three towers in Kauswagan.

Last week, three other Transco towers were also bombed, causing power failure in several towns in Lanao del Norte.

Army officer made initial report during firefight

Atendido said Lt. Col. Benitez was with six soldiers tailing behind a passenger bus at Barangay Kulasian in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte at around 4 a.m. when MILF rebels ambushed their vehicle.

He said Benitez and his group escaped and survived the ambush but the rebels torched the bus and shot several passengers.

Atendido said Benitez was on his way to Task Force Tabak headquarters in Iligan City to report as operations chief of the task force, when they were ambushed in Kolambugan.

He said Benitez and his group decided to stay and fight the rebels and kept reporting to him the situation in Kolambugan.

“He (Benitez) was the one who provided us the movement of the MILF in the area until such time they were cornered at the market area,” Atendido said.

He said the last message of Benitez was: “Sir, na-corner na kami.”

“We just want to show that his (Benitez) gallant effort will not be in vain. He was providing to us the vital information on the movement of the MILF,” Atendido said.

Rebels use civilians as human shields

Atendido said the situation remains tense after the MILF rebels who withdrew from Kolambugan took civilian hostages and used them as human shields.

At least 300 MILF rebels took control of Kolambugan’s poblacion before noon yesterday.

He said the MILF rebels have already withdrawn from Kolambugan and the other occupied towns, but they took several male hostages as human shields and have reportedly fled to the mountains in Maigo town.

Army troops were able to liberate the town of Kauswagan, Kolambugan, Linamon, Maigo, and Bacolod in Lanao del Norte.

“They (MILF) withdrew towards the nearby hinterlands,” Atendido said.

He said the rebels were forced to abandon the towns to evade an all-out military and police offensive.

The children and women previously held by the MILF were released as the rebels withdrew.

The military said rebel casualties have not yet been determined.

MILF disowns attacks

Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesman, denied that the rebel leadership ordered the attacks and claimed that the atrocities could have been conducted by a “third force” that wants to discredit the MILF.

“We know there are other groups opposed to the peace process and conducting sabotage operations,” Kabalu said, adding that the MILF leadership is verifying the situation in the field.

“This (attack) is not sanctioned. There is no such order from MILF leadership to launch an attack on government forces,” Kabalu said. Kabalu said the MILF leadership had been unable to contact Commander Bravo.

The rebel attacks came amid the uncertainty over a controversial agreement between the government and the MILF that gives the rebels more territory. The accord was put on hold after the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order stopping the signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last Aug. 5, after protesting local officials petitioned the court.

The escalation of the rebel offensive started last Sunday after MILF rebels killed four soldiers and three militiamen while 11 others were wounded after an ambush in Barangay Ilian, Mulondo, Lanao del Sur.

Military units had earlier forced out more than 100 rebels occupying several villages in Aleosan, North Cotabato after the Supreme Court stopped the signing of the peace accord.

Mayor Beltran Lumaque of Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte, said the rebels entered the town from different directions, firing their rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and confronted local policemen and soldiers.

The rebels also blocked a highway connecting the cities of Pagadian and Iligan and opened fire at approaching buses.

Lumaque said the rebels also burned the buildings at Kolambugan’s National High School.

“We’re trapped. There’s no way out. They (rebels) are at both ends of the national highway, which are the only entry and exit points to our town,” Lumaque said.

Residents were only able to bring the wounded victims to hospitals in Pagadian City when the rebels allowed them to pass the checkpoints after an hour-long negotiation with MILF rebels.

Local officials said Abdullah Macapaar, alias Commander Bravo, led the rebels that attacked Kolambugan and Kauswagan.

Guerrillas attack Sarangani public market

Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, Region 12 police director, said the rebels occupied the public market of Maasim, Sarangani, ransacked stalls of vendors and opened fire at surrounding buildings.

Serapio said the rebels tried to burn the market but the attackers withdrew after responding policemen engaged the guerrillas.

Another group of rebels fired at a nearby Army detachment where several guerrillas were wounded. They later escaped to a nearby jungle carrying their wounded companions.

MILF forces also attacked a police detachment at Barangay Kulasihan at the boundary of Kolambugan and Maigo towns in Lanao del Norte and took control of the national highway after ambushing a passenger bus bound for Pagadian City.

Members of the Army’s 5th Infantry Battalion based in Lanao del Norte launched a counter offensive against the rebels.

Two helicopter gunships were deployed from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Cagayan de Oro City and from the Tabak Division in Pulacan, Zamboanga del Sur.

The rebels also blew up a bridge near the ancestral house of President Arroyo in Iligan City.

The bridge connects Iligan City and Linamon, Lanao del Norte.

Linamon Mayor Noel Deano said hundreds of residents from Linamon, Kauswagan, Kolambugan and Maigo were evacuated to Iligan City.

Pump boats to Iligan transported most of the evacuees since the rebels took control of the national highway.

Evacuees from Linamon and Kauswagan took shelter at the Iligan City National High School and an elementary school in Barangay Buruun.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) reported that almost 7,000 individuals have sought refuge in several schools, which have been converted into evacuation centers in Iligan City and Lanao del Norte.

Chief Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil, chief of the PNP Directorate for Police Community Relations, said about 2,000 individuals are now in Kauswagan Elementary School; 1,350 persons in Iligan Central Elementary School; 1,300 in Iligan City National High School from the town of Maigo and Bacolod towns; 700 in Boroon also in Iligan; 700 in Barangay Ma. Cristina at Fuentes gymnasium and 587 persons in Tobod Central School.

Rep. Vicente Belmonte of Lanao del Norte’s First District had sent vehicles to shuttle evacuees from Linamon and Kauswagan.

He called on local government agencies to assist the evacuees and provide food assistance. - With Cecille Suerte Felipe, James Mananghaya, Jaime Laude, Evelyn Macairan, Lino dela Cruz, Edith Regalado, Ramil Bajo, Ben Serrano, John Paul Jubelag, Roel Pareño, AP

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