Manila -Mindanao’s reputation as a haven for regional terrorists took a knock last week after the Philippine military launched massive air strikes and artillery barrage on a rebel base.
Thethree-hour raid on Jan 27 on the base in a marshy region in Datu Piang town followed intelligence reports that leaders of Al-Qaeda linked groups were meeting in the area.
The reports claimed that Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani had been meeting three Indonesian members of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) at the site. The three JI members included Dulmatin, who is believed to have played a prominent role in the deadlyBalibombing in October 2002.
However, many of the terrorists who were the targets of the air strikes had slipped away to Palimbang town, which is controlled by two renegade Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders, Abdul Wahid Tondok and Abdul Rahman Biango, before the raids began.
There were conflicting accounts on the number of casualties. According to the military, 40 suspected terrorists were killed and many others wounded. However, Lt-General Alberto Braganza, Armed Forces Southern Command chief, told reporters that the guerillas had dragged their dead comrades away, making it difficult to say how many were actually killed.
On the other hand, an MILFmilitary ground commander, Colonel Gerry Jalandoni, said residents had reported that five people were killed, including a man believed to be an Indonesian.
The air strikes followed the military’s announcement a few days earlier that it had launched a manhunt in centralMindanaofor two JI militants involved in theBalibombing.
The military authorities said JI operatives regularly useMindanaofor training and refuge with the help of rogue factions from the MILF, the largest rebel group in thePhilippines.
The MILF, which is negotiating a peace agreement with the Philippine government, denies it is sheltering or training terrorists.
The rebel group had lodged a protest against the Jan 27 raid. Under a ceasefire agreement signed between the government and the MILF in 2002,Manilais required to inform the MILF beforehand if government forces plan to pursue criminals in MILF-controlled areas. However, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the strikes against the terrorist base would not affect peace talks set inKuala Lumpur,Malaysia, on Feb 5.
* Manila launches air strikes against rebels (The Straits Times, Jan 28)
* Air strikes kill 40 JI, MILF rebels (Philippine Star, Jan 28)