29 dead as Muslim rebels take over Philippine towns (Lead)

August 18th, 2008 - 5:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Manila, Aug 18 (DPA) Muslim separatist rebels went on a rampage in the southern Philippines Monday, killing at least 29 people, burning homes and looting businesses in five towns before government troops repulsed them. At least 23 civilians and four army soldiers, including an army lieutenant colonel, were killed in the attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Lanao del Norte province, 810 km south of Manila, Brigadier General Hilario Atendido said.

In Sarangani province, also on Mindanao island, two civilians were killed in Maasim town, said Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio of the regional police.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo condemned the MILF attacks and ordered the military and police to “defend every inch of Philippine territory” against the guerrillas.

“We will not tolerate and will crush any attempt to disturb peace and development in Mindanao,” she said in a nationwide broadcast.

Military and police officials said government troops recovered five towns in Lanao del Norte and one town in Sarangani that were seized by the MILF rebels for several hours.

But the guerrillas took 10 male hostages in one town and used them as human shields as they withdrew, leaving behind children and women they had seized earlier, Atendido said.

General Alexander Yano, armed forces chief of staff, denounced the attacks by the MILF as “a virtual declaration of war against the government.”

“The armed forces of the Philippines shall not allow this to go on,” Yano said at a press conference in Manila. “We are now taking military action to stop these atrocities. Our troops are heavily engaged on the ground.”

Up to 300 MILF rebels swooped down on the five towns in Lanao del Norte before dawn Monday, torching homes, taking over banks and government buildings, and ransacking public markets. The rebels also bombed electrical transmission towers.

In Kolambugan town, the guerrillas ambushed a passenger bus and killed 14 people, said the driver, Antonio Aurelio, who was able to escape unhurt.

“I heard the passengers left behind pleading for their lives, and then I heard the guerrillas fire at them all,” he said. “I did not hear any more voices after the burst of gunfire.”

Atendido said only seven civilians were so far confirmed killed in Kolambugan, where an army lieutenant colonel and three other soldiers were also slain by the guerrillas.

He said Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Benitez was able to provide vital information on the positions of the MILF rebels before he and his men were cornered by the guerrillas at the public market.

In Sarangani province, about 70 MILF guerrillas entered the town of Maasim before dawn, firing indiscriminately and looting businesses, Serapio said.

Two civilians singing at a karaoke bar were shot dead by the rebels, Serapio said.

Serapio said military and police personnel drove the rebels out of the town and pursuit operations were ongoing.

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