Thousands flee in offensive against MILF rebels


ZAMBOANGA: An estimated 18,000 people have fled their homes as the military stepped up a major offensive yesterday against Muslim separatists linked to terrorists in the southern Philippines, an official said. 

The fighting raged as US President George W. Bush announced on Monday he planned to designate the Philippines a full US military ally after talks in the White House with Philippine leader Gloria Arroyo, a key backer of the US-led global fight against terrorism. 

Armed forces spokesman Lt-Gen Rodolfo Garcia said government forces have flushed out about 300 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who had occupied the town of Munai in Lanao del Norte province. 

The rebels and several leaders of the MILF, the country's biggest Muslim separatist group, were believed to have fled to surrounding hinterland areas following the military offensive launched last Saturday. 

“Our troops however are continuing pursuit operations against the said leaders” now believed hiding in Mount Gurain near Munai town, Garcia told reporters. He said the operations were hampered by bad weather. 

Asked how many had been displaced by the fighting, he said: “Around 18,000 heads. Fighting is still ongoing and they are evacuated in towns in Lanao del Sur.” 

The military claimed to have killed at least 60 MILF rebels in the first wave of assault up to Monday. 

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu acknowledged the group faced military bombardments but denied sustaining heavy casualties. He said there have been no major ground engagements yet. 

“We don't have casualties,” Kabalu said by phone from his base in the southern Philippines. 

Military offensives were also continuing in other areas of the main southern island of Mindanao against the MILF, which the military has linked to the Jemaah Islamiah regional terror network blamed for the deadly Bali bombings last year. – AFP  

  • Another perspective from The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a partner of Asia News Network. 

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