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Arroyo Halts Offensive Against Philippine Muslim Rebels - 2003-02-11

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ordered a halt to a military offensive against Muslim separatist rebels accused of hiding kidnappers. Fierce fighting erupted Tuesday after several days of tension in the area.

Thousands of government troops aided by helicopter gunships attacked a Muslim rebel stronghold early Tuesday in the southern town of Pikit, 900 kilometers from the capital Manila.

Military officials say rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been shielding members of the Pentagon kidnap gang.

After several hours of battle, the chief government negotiator, Jesus Dureza, announced that President Arroyo had ordered a halt to the offensive.

The fighting endangers a nearly two-year-old ceasefire between the government and the MILF. Both sides are in the middle of negotiations to end more than three decades of separatist war.

"I got an instruction that I should touch base with the MILF considering that there is an order to halt the skirmishes on-going in central Mindanao," explained Mr. Dureza. "So I called up my counterpart in the MILF and relayed the information. There was mutual effort to stop the fighting on the ground."

Mr. Dureza adds that government and rebel negotiators will meet Wednesday to defuse the situation. He says that previous skirmishes have broken out between the two sides, and there is a need to strengthen cooperation to prevent them.

President Arroyo has been careful not to disrupt the talks with the MILF, despite foreign intelligence reports linking the group to the Southeast Asian terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah.

An MILF spokesman has denied that the rebels are hiding Pentagon gang members.

In another development, military officials announced that they have captured a key member of another kidnap group, the Abu Sayyaf. Hussein Abdulmanan is said to be one of the captors of an American missionary abducted from a beach resort in May 2001 and killed in a rescue attempt last year. Military officials say Mr. Hussein is undergoing interrogation.