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Communist rebels ambush army battalion commander

BUTUAN, Philippines -- Communist rebels ambushed a three-vehicle military convoy on a rugged dirt road, killing an army battalion commander and five other soldiers, officials said Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Osito Bahian, 52, commander of the 30th infantry battalion, was the highest ranking military official to be slain by New People's Army rebels this year.

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Bahian was with 11 other soldiers when the attack occurred about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday some 10 miles from Butuan City, the provincial capital of Agusan del Norte province, 513 miles south of Manila on Mindanao island.

Bahian, battalion commander for about two years, was killed along with five other soldiers, said regional commander Brig. Gen. Madrino Munoz.

Three soldiers were wounded while three others riding in an armored personnel carrier escaped unharmed after engaging the band of about 50 rebels in a 15-minute firefight, he said.

Munoz said the rebels, armed with at least one M-60 machine gun and other automatic weapons, had been dug in on a hilltop overlooking the rugged dirt road for more than 24 hours when Bahian's convoy passed.

The attack was the latest in a series of encounters between rebels and government forces which have left more than 900 people dead this year, including more than 100 in the past 10 days, according to a compilation of battlefield reports.

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In Manila, President Ferdinand Marcos assured a foreign official that his 20-year-old regime is firmly in control of the communist insurgency and that the armed forces are 'capable of preventing a communist takeover.'

A palace announcement said Marcos met for more than an hour with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Robert Rich, deputy chief of the U.S. mission in the Philippines.

Kerry, the junior member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed legislation linking future U.S. aid to the Marcos government to certification by the Reagan administration of improvements in the human rights situation in the Philippines.

The Senate committee defeated the proposed amendment to the 1986 Foreign Aid bill but has slashed Reagan's Philippine military aid request from $100 million to $40 million in favor of more economic assistance.

On Tuesday, Marcos issued similar assurances to Indonesian President Suharto and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yee, who issued a joint statement last week expressing concern the communist insurgency threatened regional stability.

The government-run Philippine News Agency reported some 300 soldiers had been deployed in the Agusan area of Mindanao in a search for Bahian's attackers.

Mindanao, beset in the 1970s by a Moslem rebellion in which some 60,000 people died, is regarded as a stronghold of the NPA rebels who 'exercise influence' in some 20 percent of the country's villages, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

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There are an estimated 12,000 armed rebels operating in a majority of the country's 73 provinces.

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