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Hundreds flee fighting in Philippines

Hundreds flee fighting in Philippines

Hundreds of people fled four villages on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as Muslim rebels exchanged mortar and gunfire with paramilitary forces, police and rebel officials said yesterday.Security and rebel forces have blamed each other for starting the fighting on Wednesday around Shariff Aguak town, where seven people were killed last week by a bomb intended for the powerful governor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan.
There were no clashes yesterday but members of the government and rebel ceasefire panels, worried about the potential impact on Malaysian-brokered peace talks, were struggling to prevent the fighting from escalating and threatening a three-year-old truce.
"There was continued shelling of our communities until late last night," Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, said by phone from his hideout on Mindanao. "More than 200 families left their homes to avoid getting caught in the crossfire."
Army officials said no regular soldiers were involved in the clashes. The paramilitary forces are civilians trained and armed by the military to help defend their communities, but analysts say they are often used by local politicians as private armies.
Talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim separatist group in the mainly Roman Catholic country, stalled in May over issues of the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland.
Ancestral land proposal
Manila has offered to include an extra 600 villages outside the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as part of the proposed ancestral land, but the MILF wants at least 1,000 more than the government's proposal.
Kabalu said MILF rebels had killed about 30 paramilitaries in intense fighting near the vast marshlands in Shariff Aguak and Datu Unsay towns in Mindanao's central region.
"Our troops seized the militia's command post to stop the shelling on Thursday," he said. "We lost only one fighter and 10 others were wounded."
Superintendent Lumala Gunting, police chief of Maguindanao province, disputed the rebel spokesman's account, saying it was the paramilitaries who killed dozens of guerrillas.
"I had not seen any casualty from our side," Gunting told reporters. "Fighting has subsided because the enemies ran out of ammunition."
There was no independent confirmation of the casualties because members of the ceasefire panels, together with a team of Malaysian peace monitors, had difficulty getting to the area.
The MILF has been negotiating with Manila since 1997 to end a nearly 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development of the south, which is rich in oil, minerals, timber and agricultural goods.
"Only the president can stop the fighting and save the peace negotiations," said Benny Bacani, executive director of the Institute of Autonomy and Governance in Cotabato City.
"If there's no political will displayed here, violence may escalate, threatening the ceasefire and may break the confidence of the peace talks."


Updated : 2021-10-16 05:17 GMT+08:00