MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A monthlong Philippine offensive against hard-line Muslim rebels ended Monday after 139 insurgents were killed, 12 others were captured and bomb-making strongholds were seized by troops, the military chief said.
Ten soldiers were killed and 30 others were wounded in the ground and air strikes in the marshy boundary of Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces in the southern Philippines. The clashes displaced 120,000 villagers at the height of fighting, and about 30,000 have returned home as the clashes eased, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang told a news conference.
In a final gunbattle Sunday, four soldiers and 16 insurgents were killed, including a rebel commander, the military said.
Government forces launched the assaults Feb. 25 against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement after its fighters attacked villages and were implicated in the killings in January of 44 police anti-terror commandos in the outskirts of Maguindanao's Mamasapano town.
"After the relentless operations against the (rebels), we have achieved our objectives, including the neutralization of more than 50 percent of their ranks, the capture of their bomb factories and the seizure of their enclaves or safe havens," Catapang said.
The military's account could not be independently verified. Catapang cited intelligence and accounts from troops and villagers for the rebel death toll.
Catapang said a smaller number of troops would continue to hunt the rest of the rebels, specifically Abdul Basit Usman, alleged to be a bomb maker and trainer with links to the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network and a suspect in several deadly bomb attacks in the south.
Washington has offered a $1 million award for Usman's capture and prosecution.
The huge police casualties in Mamasapano — the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory — sparked public outrage and calls for retaliatory strikes against the insurgents. The deaths also stalled a peace deal the government signed last year with the largest Muslim rebel group in the south, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, some fighters of which became entangled in the clashes that killed the commandos.
After the offensive, government troops will help construct roads, bridges, schools and hospitals in the area of fighting — far-flung communities where poverty, landlessness and neglect have fostered the decades-long Muslim rebellion in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation.
One of the priority projects, the military said, is the replacement of a rickety wooden foot bridge near the cornfields where many of the police commandos were killed.