Soldiers fire at Kato's hiding place in Kabuntalan

The attack on the soldiers in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town came after the 6th Infantry Division launched operations to get Ameril Umbra Kato, one of three “rogue commanders” of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) wanted by authorities for the series of deadly attacks last year in North Cotabato,  said Lt. Col. Jonathan Ponce, a military spokesman.

Rexall Kaalim, coordinator of the grassroots-based Bantay Ceasefire saidthe soldiers, backed by tanks and two 105mm artillery cannons entered Barangay Sambulawan in Midsayap town last Saturday night, causing panic among residents.

Kaalim said US soldiers were seen accompanying Filipino troops in a small firebase in Barangay Sambulawan.

By Sunday morning, he said, residents told Bantay Ceasefire volunteers that soldiers were seen deploying toward the town of Kabuntalan where Kato is believed to be hiding.

"The soldiers fired their cannons as soon as we left Barangay Sambulawan Sunday night," Kaalim told MindaNews.

The operation against Kato appeared to be directed in the three towns of Midsayap, Kabuntalan and Saudi Ampatuan.

Along the highway between Cotabato City and Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat, tanks blocked buses and vehicles as soldiers searched its passengers for guns and explosives Sunday.

Umbra Kato has been wanted for allegedly attacking several North Cotabato towns in July and August last year.

On September 5, 2008, the Department of Interior and Local Government doubled the reward for information leading to the capture of Kato and Abdurahman Macaapar alias Commander Bravo, from P5 million to P10 million each.

The doubling of the reward money, said Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno, is meant to "expedite the process of bringing these suspects to justice.”

Nearly six months after the reward was doubled, the commanders have yet to be arrested.  A third MILF commander, Aleem Sulayman Pangalian,  has a P5 million bounty on his head.

Pangalian is also being held responsible for the attacks in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte.(Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)