HANOI — The Philippine army carried its biggest offensive against Muslim separatists in years to the perimeter of the rebels' last stronghold Wednesday, pounding the camp with aerial bombardments and mortars.
Commanders told Philippine reporters that they could capture the sprawling, 25,000-acre Camp Abu Bakr on the southern island of Mindanao within days if they push forward with an all-out attack.
"They're out to pulverize us," said rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu. "But we will preserve Abu Bakr at all costs. The biggest war is yet to come."
Kabalu told Manila reporters by telephone that 80% of the camp had been destroyed, a statement that Philippine intelligence sources said was an exaggeration. But President Joseph Estrada's policy of talk-and-fight has sapped the military strength of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, which has been battling for 29 years to establish an independent Muslim state on the island.
The fighting outside the Mindanao city of Cotabato is unrelated to the operations of another Muslim rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf, which is holding at least 20 foreigners kidnapped April 23 from a Malaysian resort. The government considers the Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization.
Until April the MILF had been allowed to operate about 50 camps that were off limits to government soldiers. But when the rebels broke off peace talks, the army voided the offer of sanctuary and began attacking and dismantling the bases one by one. Only Abu Bakr--the largest--remains, the government says.
Estrada gave MILF leader Salamat Hashim, a 58-year-old revolutionary with close ties to Middle East extremists, until June 30 to denounce secession and accept a government offer of autonomy. When the deadline passed without response, Estrada ordered troops to close in on Abu Bakr, though it remains unclear if government forces plan an all-out assault.
Western intelligence sources said Estrada's goal appears to be to isolate the MILF fighters--who are believed to number between 8,000 and 12,000, though the MILF claims 120,000 combatants--in one area, wear down their strength bit by bit and force them to accept peace on the government's terms. Once that happens, the government will turn its attention to neutralizing the much smaller Abu Sayyaf, an Estrada aide said.
The MILF fighters carry arms from Pakistan and at various times have been supported financially by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who was indicted in Manhattan in 1998 for the bombing attacks that year on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. MILF recruits, many of them teenagers, are paid $270 a month--a princely sum in the Philippines' poorest province. They often are called upon to carry out the extortions, shakedowns, kidnappings and assassinations that are part of the group's modus operandi.
Estrada, whose popularity ratings have been sinking, has won virtual universal backing from Filipinos with his tough policy against the separatists. The MILF has little public support outside the Muslim stronghold of Mindanao in the predominantly Christian nation. Even the majority of Muslims do not favor the balkanization of the country.
"The Muslims do have a point on their grievances" that the government needs to devote more attention to economic development in Mindanao, Tony Santos, president of the Cotabato Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview last year. "But I'll tell you this: We want this problem solved. We're fed up. The war is strangling us economically."
In 1996, the government negotiated an end to a war with the oldest and largest of the Muslim separatist groups, the Moro National Liberation Front. It involved payoffs to key leaders, a large degree of autonomy in four provinces and promises of economic development. The more sectarian MILF was not included in the negotiations and fought on. The war has claimed 120,000 lives over three decades.