Gunmen Raid Southern Town; Fighting Kills Dozens
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ About 200 Islamic separatists attacked a southern Philippine town Tuesday, plundering banks and stores, burning buildings and fighting troops flown in to defend the town.
At least 45 people died and 30 people more were injured before troops were flown in Tuesday and drove the gunmen into the forest. Initial military reports put the death toll at about 100.
President Fidel Ramos declared a state of emergency in Ipil, a town of 50,000 people on the island of Mindanao about 480 miles south of Manila, and put all troops on Mindanao on alert.
Troops and police scoured mountains and coastal areas for the fleeing raiders as the government and private groups rushed aid to the devastated town Wednesday.
The government said the heavily armed men were members of Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim group fighting for a religious state in the southern Philippines. The group has been linked to a plot to kill Pope John Paul II and blow up American airliners over the Pacific.
Police said they found a banner in Ipil marking the Abu Sayyaf’s third anniversary. The group surfaced publicly in 1993.
The gunmen, who arrived on boats, trucks and a bus, waited for a signal to raid four of the town’s seven banks simultaneously at midday, according to radio reports and the military.
They also ransacked at least one department store and set many buildings on fire to confuse police and soldiers, said military spokesman Maj. Fredesvindo Covarrubias.
Radio reports said in late afternoon thick smoke filled the town, and one witness who arrived in Zamboanga by bus called Ipil ``a burning inferno.″
Regional police chief Orville Gabuna said the raiders, many wearing military uniforms and red headbands, broke into three groups _ two fleeing toward a forest and the third boarding motorized outriggers at Ipil.
The attackers took nine people hostage as they fled, including a village chief, said Ipil telephone company manager Ramon Villanueva, interviewed by a Zamboanga radio station.
Miguela Mondido, who was shot in her left arm, was among 11 injured flown to Zamboanga. One of them died there. Mondido, 39, said she saw a truck full of men heading for the center of town.
``When the truck reached the commercial district, the armed men immediately jumped out of the truck and I just heard shooting,″ Mondido said. ``I just jumped out of the window. I don’t know who fired at our bus.″
By Wednesday morning, authorities had recovered at least 42 bodies, including four charred remains taken from the burned down public market, Villanueva said.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development reported at least 45 people killed, 30 wounded and five missing. The military in Zamboanga and the interior secretary initially said at least 100 people had died.
Among those killed were the town police chief, the commander of the 10th Infantry Battalion stationed in Ipil and a local bank manager. It was not immediately known how many, if any, of the casualties were rebels.
The military has accused Abu Sayyaf of bombings and ransom kidnappings whose targets included American and Spanish missionaries and Filipino businessmen. In January, two soldiers died and eight were wounded when the military stormed an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
A former Abu Sayyaf officer who recently surrendered to authorities said Tuesday’s raid was retaliation for the arrests of six Muslim extremists over the weekend. ``There are many more such attacks that will follow,″ Edwin Angeles told the Manila television station ABS-CBN.
The extremists, who police said had ties to Abu Sayyaf, allegedly were recruiting followers for terrorist attacks. They also allegedly had ties to Ramzi Yousef, who faces trial in New York for allegedly masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people.
Defense Secretary Renato de Villa said authorities have no immediate information linking the arrests to the attack.
Abu Sayyaf espouses an ideology more religiously oriented than the larger and more secular Moro National Liberation Front. The front entered into peace negotiations with the government in late 1992, and some members unhappy with the development joined Abu Sayyaf.