Wednesday, June 25, 2008

MILF, Army Say 14 Killed In Fierce Fighting In Mindanao

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / June 25, 2008) – Fierce fighting erupted Wednesday between government troops and Muslim rebels in the restive region of the southern Philippines with both sides reporting as many as 14 people dead.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels said four army soldiers were killed in the fighting near Maguindanao, one of six provinces under the Muslim autonomous region. Clashes also broke out in Sarangani province, southeast of Maguindanao, said Eid Kabalu, a rebel spokesman.

The Army’s 6th Infantry Division said 10 rebels were slain in the clashes.

“Four government soldiers are dead in Maguindanao fighting. We still have no reports of casualties in Sarangani clashes, but fighting is still raging in the area,” he told the Mindanao Examiner.

Kabalu said government troops attacked MILF positions in Maguindanao and Sarangani provinces, sparking sporadic, but fierce clashes between military and rebel forces.

He accused the military of violating a fragile truce which could further put at risk peace negotiations between the MILF and Manila. “The fighting could threaten the peace talks if hostilities escalate to other areas. Troops are attacking our positions without provocations,” Kabalu said.

Peace talks have been stalled since last year after government negotiators agreed, but later reneged on a deal that would give back Muslims their ancestral lands in the southern Philippines.

“MILF leaders are getting restless because of the government’s insincerity to the peace process. Many rebels are disgruntled over the slow progress of the peace talks and we don’t want this aggravated by continued military violations of the truce agreement,” Kabalu said.

Major Julieto Ando, a regional army spokesman, denied that four soldiers were killed in the fighting. “Civilian intelligence said ten rebels are slain in the fighting. No government soldiers were injured or killed in the clashes,” he said in a separate interview.

Ando said the fighting was triggered by rebel attacks on military posts and soldiers in the two provinces. “Rebels forces attacked military posts with mortars and anti-tank rockets and troops only retaliated in self-defense,” he said.

He said hundreds of villagers have fled their homes and sought safe refuges because of the MILF attacks. "Civilians are really angry because of the rebel attacks. They were displaced, hungry and angry with the MILF," he said.

“The MILF is so desperate because of the stalled peace talks and now rebels are attacking us and then blamed the military for breaking the truce agreement,” Ando said.

Ando said the attacks by rebels coincided with military operation to rescue many stranded civilians in many areas hit by flash floods brought about by typhoon Fengshen in Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan and Sultan Kudarat provinces.

“The military is busy in the search and rescue operations in an effort to save civilians trapped in many villages now under water and the MILF is attacking our troops,” he said.

Manila opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001 and signed a truce agreement with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group which is fighting the past three decades for the establishment of a strict Islamic state in Mindanao.

But despite the cease-fire accord, sporadic clashes between soldiers and rebels still continue in many places in the southern Philippines with both sides accusing each other of violating the truce. (Mindanao Examiner)

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