Date: Tue, 21 Oct 1997 16:34:58 -0600
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11:07 AM ET 10/20/97
PH:Muslim rebels on full alert in southern Philippines

Muslim rebels on full alert in southern Philippines

Reuter, 20 October 1997

COTABATO, Philippines (Reuters) - Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines are on full alert after hundreds of soldiers took up positions near a major guerrilla camp, a rebel official said Monday.

"It is only natural that we should be alarmed that such a big number of troops were deployed suddenly near our camp,'' Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) vice chairman for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, said by telephone.

Jaafar protested the army move in a letter to a government panel involved in peace talks with the MILF, calling it a violation of their cease-fire accord.

An army spokesman said the military movements were part of security operations.

The exact number of troops involved was not known but Jaafar said more than 1,000 soldiers had been deployed near the MILF's Camp Abubakar outside Cotabato. The camp is the biggest guerrilla base on the southern island of Mindanao, 500 miles south of Manila.

About 200 families have fled their homes near the camp, local officials said.

Jaafar refused to say how many MILF men were in the camp, saying only that they numbered "several thousand.''

The army positioning occurred less than a week after two Arab gunmen linked by the military to the MILF attacked an army base near Cotabato, killing three soldiers before they were shot and killed.

The MILF has denied any role in the incident.

There has been no major incident between the two sides since June when 70 rebels and 15 soldiers died in a series of clashes.

The MILF, with a force estimated by the military at 8,000 men, is fighting for an Islamic state. They were not a party to a peace deal signed by Manila last year with the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The MILF said earlier Monday it had ordered its forces to stop executions after President Fidel Ramos condemned the killing by a rebel firing squad of two alleged murderers.

The MILF announced its decision to stop the executions in a letter to the government on the eve of talks between the two sides to discuss last week's attack by the two Arab gunmen.