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Government troops beat back rebel attack

By
NONA BAUTISTA

TUGUEGARAO, Philippines -- A rebel governor seized a hotel early Sunday and allegedly killed a senior military officer, then escaped when government troops routed his gunmen from the building nine hours later in an assault that left at least 20 people dead, officials said.

Renegade Cagayan provincial Gov. Rodolfo Aguinaldo, whose 200-man force seized the downtown Hotel Delfino in an unsuccessful attempt to lead an uprising against President Corazon Aquino, was being pursued, the military said.

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Armed forces chief Gen. Renato de Villa issued orders late Sunday to get Aguinaldo 'dead or alive.'

Aquino's local government secretary, Luis Santos, who escaped from the hotel, said he had seen Aguinaldo shoot Brig. Gen. Oscar Florendo, 52, the armed forces' civil relations chief, who was taken hostage by Aguinaldo's forces in the hotel.

Aquino had dispatched Santos and Florendo to Tuguegarao, 220 miles north of Manila, to arrest Aguinaldo, 41, a former constabulary colonel indicted on Tuesday for rebellion in connection with the bloody Dec. 1-9 coup attempt.

De Villa said Florendo was unarmed and was shot and killed at close range.

At least 19 others, mostly rebels, were killed and scores of civilians were wounded in the gunfire in and around the the hotel, regional military spokesman Willie Custodio said. Local officials broadcast appeals for blood donations.

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Santos, two town mayors and at least three other senior military officials trapped in the hotel escaped unhurt after the pre-dawn takeover by Aguinaldo and his force of 200 hill tribesmen and rebel returnees.

Acting on orders from Aquino to quell the uprising swiftly, loyalist forces mounted an assault at mid-afternoon, scattering Aguinaldo's men deployed in streets leading to the hotel.

The troops tossed tear gas cannisters to disperse some 2,000 pro-Aguinaldo demonstrators in front of the hotel and battled the rebels inside the four-story building.

By nightfall, 112 of Aguinaldo's men surrendered and 89 others were captured. They were disarmed and spread-eagled in front of the building. Those who surrendered included 12 soldiers who defected Sunday and joined Aguinaldo.

Regional commander Col. Miguel Fontanilla said Aguinaldo abandoned his men and fled to the northern mountains aboard an ambulance.

'Some of our people are pursuing him,' Fontanilla said.

Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the dusty provincial capital with a population of 90,000 as loyalist forces conducted mopping up operations.

Opposition Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense minister who helped oust former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was one of those indicted along with Aguinaldo and five other people last week in connection with the December coup attempt. Enrile is detained in Manila.

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Aquino, in a statement in Manila, denounced the slaying of Florendo as an 'act of treachery and cowardice.'

'We will see that the fullest force of the law is meted out,' Aquino said. 'I call on all our people to continue to reject violence and uphold our constitutional democracy.'

Aguinaldo struck before dawn, occupying the hotel, which had 54 registered guests, and deploying his forces around the building. Florendo had told reporters he was on his way to breakfast when he met Aguinaldo, who told him he was a 'prisoner of war.'

Santos and the other officers were alerted and held Aguinaldo's men to a standoff.

'It's an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation,' Santos said at one point in a radio interview from the second floor of the hotel. 'We are few, but they are going to have a hard time. The majesty of the law will be upheld. ... It might cost us our lives of course.'

'This is a war of nerves,' said Aguinaldo, who was wounded in the face in an initial encounter earlier in the day. 'I am demanding justice, freedom and good government,' he said, echoing a demand by mutineers in the December uprising.

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Aguinaldo said he had been assured of help from renegade army Col. Alexander Noble and Moslem separatist forces in the southern island of Mindanao in trying to ignite another rebellion against Aquino.

A congressman, who did not wish to be named, said an uprising in the north and south of the Philippine archipelago could signal a new coup attempt against Aquino. At least 119 people were killed and more than 500 were wounded in the December rebellion, the sixth and most serious in Aquino's four years as president.

De Villa and Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, said however, at a news conference in Manila after consulting with Aquino that the situation in the country was normal.

They said the 159,000-member armed forces was placed on full alert to meet any contingencies.

Aguinaldo was suspended Jan. 9 while he was undergoing pre-trial investigation for allegedly broadcasting over radio he was sending troops and tanks at the height of the December uprising.

Although denounced for human rights abuses during the Marcos regime, Aguinaldo is popular among the people of Cagayan province for his successful campaign against communist insurgents.

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