- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

MANILA — The Philippine president yesterday condemned as terrorism an attack by Muslim rebels that killed 27 persons in a southern town, and officials placed $96,000 bounties on the heads of several guerrilla leaders.The Moro Islamic Liberation Front took 57 hostages in an attack Sunday on Siocon town, seized the town hall and a hospital, and torched a market. The government regained control of the town later that day and all but three hostages have been released, Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero said.The hostages were “evidently to be used as human shields,” said Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, the military’s vice chief of staff.Government troops on Sunday regained control of Siocon, a predominantly Christian town on Mindanao island after an attack by the separatist rebels.Col. Lucero said 11 soldiers and police, and 10 civilians were killed as army troops backed by helicopter gunships fought off about 100 rebels. He said six rebels were killed.President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned rebel leaders they would be held responsible for the attack.”The attack on a civilian community is an act of terrorism,” she said.Her government approved rewards of $96,000 each for the capture of several known MILF leaders, including Chairman Hashim Salamat.Mrs. Arroyo called on the rebels to turn over the fugitives, adding that she has instructed government negotiators to raise the issue with leadership and demand that it renounce terrorism when the two sides meet tomorrow in Malaysia for preliminary talks aiming to restart formal peace talks stalled since last year.Formal peace talks would remain suspended because of the fighting, chief government negotiator Jesus Dureza said.Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the attack was directed at an army battalion headquarters as part of the guerrillas’ “active defense posture” in the face of a continuing military offensive.”We are trying to avoid these collateral damages, but it’s difficult to avoid because the civilians are mixed with the military in the same area,” Mr. Kabalu said.He vowed the rebels would keep attacking unless officials meet their demands, including returning a captured rebel camp and withdrawing criminal charges against rebel leaders.Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye dismissed Mr. Kabalu’s claim, saying “burning the public market is not part of defensive posturing, and we can see the high number of civilian casualties.”Siocon Mayor Cesar Soriano said his town of 50,000 people was struggling to recover from the attack.”If you can see the faces of our people here, even in the streets they are crying and you cannot help but feel very sad,” he said in a radio interview.In another incident, also on Sunday, the separatists ambushed three military trucks carrying soldiers’ wives and children in Matanog town, 528 miles southeast of Manila, officials said.Two soldiers and another soldier’s wife were wounded while three guerrillas were killed, the army’s 6th Infantry Division chief, Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, said.

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