PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — WAR planes and helicopter gunships pounded enemy positions as the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command launched an offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces that attacked Lanao del Norte towns.
Bombers and helicopters provided air support while ground troops from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division fought to drive the rebels out of the three towns they had invaded, Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, Western Mindanao Command chief, said.
Allaga said the offensive is aimed to clear and restore normalcy to the affected municipalities in Lanao del Norte.
Hundreds of MILF rebels on Monday attacked the coastal towns of Kauswagan, Kulambogan, and Maigo.
The province of Lanao del Norte comprises one city and 22 towns with a population of 836,329 based on the 2007 census, Allaga said..
”We are driving them (out) slowly,” said Maj. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, chief of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
”The safety of the civilian populace shall continue to be the utmost priority of our troops while pursuing the perpetrators of this violent activity,” Pajarito said.
He said the rebels ransacked stores, grocery shops and pharmacies apart from burning houses, schools, and commercial buildings.
The Philippine National Police said so far 25 people including four soldiers, four militiamen, and a policeman were killed while 13 were wounded, among them eight soldiers, two militiamen and three civilians.
The PNP casualty report include that of the ambush of a military convoy Sunday by MILF rebels in the village of Lilan, Malundo, Lanao del Sur.
“We will continue to perform our mandate as protector of the Filipino people against lawless elements. Your AFP shall always be at the forefront of combating all forms of violence in order to uphold peace and security in the area and bring to justice the people responsible for these despicable acts,” Allaga said.
Armed Forces chief General Alexander Yano said the AFP is taking “aggressive action” against the MILF rebels who have occupied and attacked Lanao and North Cotabato villages, saying military operations will not stop with the clearing of the areas.
In a news briefing, Yano said the military cannot accept the excuse offered by the MILF leadership that they did not sanction the atrocities by elements of the 104th and 105th Base Commanders under Commanders Bravo and Umbra Kato respectively.
“If they keep on saying that line, if they cannot control (their men), then the government will certainly control them and we will undertake our mandate to protect the people and the communities and we cannot renege on that constitutional mandate,” Yano said.
Meanwhile, an Army general said troops found the bodies of 25 civilians when government forces regained control of the towns of Kauswagan and Kolambugan Monday noon.
Most of the civilians who died in Monday’s clash were from the villages of Kauswagan, which MILF rebels tried to seize Monday morning, said Brigadier General Antonio Supnet, chief of the Army 104th Brigade.
Supnet said 21 bodies were found in Kauswagan and another four in nearby Kolambugan town.
He said two of the bodies were inside a Rural Transit bus in Kolambugan.
Supnet also said that the rebels burned at least 20 houses in Barangay Lapayan, Kauswagan as they fled.
Troops of the Army 5th Infantry Battalion regained control of Kolambugan after suspected MILF rebels withdrew towards the town of Tangkal in Lanao del Sur.
He advised the public though that it is safer to travel during the day and said they could not guarantee the rebels will not mount an attack at night.