rePost: MILF rebels withdraw to Lanao uplands as conflict kills 31

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MILF rebels withdraw to Lanao uplands as conflict kills 31

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatists have withdrawn to the hinterlands of Lanao del Norte after armed conflict in predominantly Christian coastal communities of the province left at least 28 civilians and three soldiers dead.

Lanao del Norte Gov. Mohamad Khalid Dimaporo told ANC’s Top Story on Monday that MILF rebels have withdrawn from the province’s coastal towns such as Kolambugan and that the military is “positioning itself to secure the province’s coastal towns.”

Dimaporo called on the miltiary to pursue the MILF rebels who occupied some of the provincial towns Monday morning and early afternoon.

MILF rebels raided several towns in Lanao del Norte province, looting businesses, burning homes and randomly attacking the mostly Christian villagers, officials said.

President Gloria Arroyo branded the attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas as “sneaky and treacherous” and in clear violation of peace negotiations, and ordered the army to “defend every inch” of soil.

AFP reporters saw nine bodies lying bloodied by a roadside in one village in Kauswagan town as black smoke billowed from burning houses.

Five other civilians were killed in another village by the marauding MILF fighters, while six more bodies were found, also in Kauswagan, later Monday.

All 20 bodies were taken by troops to two mortuaries in Iligan city a few kilometres (miles) away, an AFP reporter saw.

In the town of Kolambugan, six civilians and three soldiers were killed, mayor Beltran Lumaque said in a radio interview. Among those killed was Colonel Angelo Benitez, an army brigade commander whose troops had engaged the rebels in intense gunbattles since dawn.

Another rebel unit struck the town of Maasim, leaving two civilians dead as they ransacked a pawn shop and looted a drug store, said the military.

Some of the dead had been hacked by machetes.

Safe to return?

Dimaporo said the MILF rebels retreated to predominantly Muslim towns in the “interior, timberland areas” of Lanao del Norte near Lanao del Sur. He said the upland towns of Munai and Poona Paigapo of Lanao del Norte are the MILF strongholds of the province.

Citing military reports, Dimaporo said the MILF rebels who attacked the town were reinforced by rebels from Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. “Those are the people, the groups who attacked Lanao del Norte today,” he said.

With the MILF having withdrawn to the uplands of Lanao del Norte, Dimaporo said that “more or less, the communities are safe” for now.

He said the provincial government will try to convince those who evacuated to nearby areas like Ozamiz City in Misamis Occidental, and in Iligan City to return to their homes.

“We’re trying to convince them to come back to the province, but more or less it’s safe. The military has secured the national highway and they are doubling their forces and their highest priority now is to keep the coastal towns safe and secure,” Dimaporo said.

Silent on MOA

He lamented that the MILF still attacked Lanao del Norte towns even if it did not openly oppose the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government and the MILF, unlike North Cotabato and Zamboanga.

“All reserved their rage about the MOA signing and they waited until it reached Congress, and yet the MILF attacked our towns. We wanted to give peace a chance We didn’t comment so much on the TV, on the radio opposing the MOA and yet the MILF still attacked Lanao del Norte,” Dimaporo said.

“They’re very unreasonable, and I believe the military should go in hot pursuit of the MILF and clear Lanao del Norte [of rebels],” he added.

Dimaporo claimed that the residents of Lanao del Norte who used to favor joining the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) after the 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front no longer want to be part of the expanded Bangsamoro territory after seeing the alleged failed governance in the ARMM.

“After seeing the performance of the ARMM ever since then, the people don’t want to join the ARMM anymore. They don’t want to be part of the Bangsamoro homeland. They are already receiving roads and infrastructure from the government. They are very happy with what they’re receiving right now,” he said.

At least 26 killed

Brig. Gen. Hilario Atendido, commander of the military’s Task Force Tabak, said 23 civilians and three soldiers were killed in fighting in Lanao del Norte.

Around 500 rebels had occupied the town of Kolambugan while another 300 tried to occupy the town of Kauswagan.

Atendido said most of the civilian casualties were from Kolambugan and Linamon towns. Some of the civilians killed were hostages taken by the MLF during the occupation of Kolambugan.

“The civilians were killed when the rebels were withdrawing. They used them as human shields. The rebels killed them on their way out. They were killed as if they were like chicken. That is the report given to us by the civilians,” Atendido said.

He said the military will “remain vigilant” against attacks from MILF rebels.

“We are still on alert for any possible return of the MILF. They withdrew from Kolambugan as the troops were entering the town,” Atendido said.

Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, head of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command, told ANC’s Top Story that the military was “now in pursuit operations” of the MILF rebels.

Allaga rejected calls for a ceasefire since they are “still running after the perpetrators” of the conflict in Lanao del Norte.

He said the MILF rebels did the most damage in the town of Kolambugan, but the military was allegedly able to limit the conflict in the towns of Kauswagan and Linamon. –with reports from AFP