Muslim rebel attacks kill 16 in Philippines

August 18th, 2008 - 1:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Manila, Aug 18 (DPA) Muslim separatist rebels went on a rampage in the southern Philippines Monday, killing at least 16 people as they seized towns, burned homes and looted businesses, military and police officials said. The attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were “a virtual declaration of war against the government,” said General Alexander Yano, armed forces chief of staff.

Heavy fighting between government forces and MILF rebels were reported in Lanao del Norte province, 810 km south of Manila, where the guerrillas took over four towns.

“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 four towns in Lanao del Norte before dawn Monday, torching homes, taking over banks and government buildings, and ransacking public markets.

In Kolambugan town, the guerrillas ambushed a passenger bus and killed up to 14 civilians, 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.”

In Sarangani province, which is also on the island of Mindanao, about 70 MILF guerrillas swooped down on the town of Maasim before dawn, firing indiscriminately and looting businesses, said Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, a regional police commander.

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

“Their motive was simply to sow terror and to loot,” he said.

Ghazali Jaafar - vice chairman for political affairs for the MILF, the largest Muslim rebel group fighting for a separate Islamic state on Mindanao - said there was no order from the rebel group’s leadership to conduct the attacks.

He said ground commanders could have launched the offensives out of frustration over the failed signing of a homeland deal between the MILF and the Philippine government, which would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.

“They are frustrated over how the peace talks are going on, but their actions are not sanctioned by the MILF Central Committee,” he said.

The hostilities started Sunday when four army soldiers and four government militiamen were killed in an ambush by MILF rebels in Mulondo town in nearby Lanao del Sur province. Eleven government troops were wounded.

The guerrillas also bombed two budget hotels in nearby Iligan City, wounding four people, army Brigadier General Hilario Atendido said.

The first explosion occurred at the Traveler’s Inn in downtown Iligan City, wounding three people. Minutes later, another homemade bomb went off outside the Caprice Lodge, injuring one person.

The violence came days after fierce fighting between MILF rebels and the military ended in neighbouring North Cotabato province, where hundreds of guerrillas occupied 15 villages for days, displacing nearly 160,000 people.

The guerrillas occupied the villages two weeks ago after the Supreme Court stopped the signing of the Muslim homeland deal.

Catholic politicians have alleged that the deal violated the constitution and would have ceded sovereignty over the southern Philippines to the rebels. They have urged the Supreme Court to declare the agreement unconstitutional.

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