3 killed in hunt for escaped terrorist

CAGAYAN DE ORO -- Three gunmen were killed while six soldiers were wounded Sunday when troops clashed with a group of armed men believed to be protecting Jemaah Islamiyah bomber Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi in Mindanao, the military said.

Major General Trifonio Salazar, 1st Infantry Division chief, said the clashes took place in a mountainous area near the town of Sultan Naga Dimaporo in the southern province of Lanao del Norte.

"There was a running gun battle. The fighting is ongoing," said Major General Trifonio Salazar, head of a military task force leading the hunt for al-Ghozi, whose escape from a Manila prison last month triggered a security alert across Southeast Asia.

Salazar said he was not sure what group the armed men belonged to, but added the area is a known stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been linked by intelligence operatives in the region to the Jemaah Islamiyah.

Attack helicopters have been dispatched to provide air support for the ground troops, Salazar said.

Armed Forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero confirmed the fighting, but declined to speculate on the whereabouts of al-Ghozi, who has confessed to being a JI operative.

He also did not discount the possibility that the armed men are protecting al-Ghozi, saying they are still verifying this information.

"For now alam namin basta may bakbakan doon (What we know is that there is an encounter there) versus this heavily armed group that has yet to be identified," he said Sunday.

MILF stronghold

The fighting was in an area bordering the provinces of Lano del Sur, Lanao del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur, a known stronghold of Moro separatist rebels, he said.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied reports that guerrillas from the 25,000-strong group could be aiding al-Ghozi and warned that a large presence of troops in areas where the rebels were operating could provoke further clashes.

Lucero said that at around 10 p.m. Sunday, elements of TG Panther of the First Scout Ranger Battalion of the Southern Command ran into a group of armed men in Barangay Barangay Rebucon, Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte.

Three in the armed group were killed while six soldiers were wounded. Government forces recovered two high-powered firearms.

An Abu Sayyaf bandit who escaped with al-Ghozi from the high security detention center in national police headquarters led authorities to the area when he was caught last week.

He was later killed after he allegedly tried to grab a soldier's firearm while being interrogated.

"Our troops from the first infantry division are verifying the information that Edris gave before he died," Lucero said, referring to Abdulmukim Edris, the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla.

There were speculations that al-Ghozi was hiding in an MILF enclave in Sultan Naga Dimaporo. The suspicion was further fueled when a suspected Moro separatist unit leader was killed together with Edris.

Talks threatened

But Kabalu said Sunday the gunmen were not members of the separatist group.

"Hostilities would erupt if the military attacks our positions in the guise of pursuing al-Ghozi and this hostile action against the MILF may threaten the peace talks," Kabalu warned.

Both the government and the MILF have agreed to a ceasefire ahead of resuming formal peace negotiations aimed at ending the MILF's 25-year insurgency.

Kabalu said the coordinating committee on cessation of hostilities (CCCH) has already agreed Sunday to send a representative to Sultan Naga Dimaporo to investigate the reported encounter there.

He said Benjie Midtimbang, a representative of the MILF to the committee, agreed to the visit to clear the separatist group of accusations that it was giving refuge to the Indonesian bomber who admitted to plotting the bombing of the LRT in Manila in December 2000.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye, however, said Kabalu was over-reacting, noting that government negotiators had informed a joint ceasefire monitoring committee before the troops were deployed to the area.

The government's chief negotiator in talks with the MILF, Eduardo Ermita, assured the rebels the target of the operations was al-Ghozi and urged them to help in the hunt "if only to prove they don't condone terrorism."

Al Ghozi's escape has embarrassed the Philippine government and set back the regional war on terror. Al-Ghozi was already serving a 17-year jail term for illegal explosives possession at the time of his escape.

He had also admitted to plotting bomb attacks against Western targets in Singapore and led Philippine police to an explosives cache hidden in the south. Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro/With AFP

10/08/2003

Bron : www.sunstar.com.ph

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