Philippine army suspects rebels broke ceasefire

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MANILA, Sep 26 (Reuters) Two soldiers and at least 10 rebels were killed in fresh fighting on a southern Philippine island, the military chief said today, warning the largest Muslim separatist group to honour a four-year-old truce.

General Hermogenes Esperon said he suspected the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) might have broken a ceasefire with the government by helping the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf in the first major firefight after a lull of almost a month on Basilan island.

The army was investigating whether MILF members were involved in the fighting because the largest Muslim rebel group is known to be operating in the area.

''If necessary, we'll file a complaint against the MILF for violating the truce,'' Esperon said, adding some MILF members could be involved because the military believed only 50 members of Abu Sayyaf were active on the island.

''If there are 50 to 80 men involved, then, there's a basis to conclude that there might be other lawless elements involved in the fighting,'' he told reporters at the main army base in Manila.

MILF has been in talks with the government for a decade but negotiations were stalled in September 2006 over the size and wealth to be accorded to a proposed ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslins in the south.

The two sides were expected to resume exploratory talks next month in Malaysia, at the end of the Muslims' fasting month of Ramadan, to wrap up a political deal to end nearly 40 years of separatist rebellion that has killed more than 120,000 people.

Esperon said 15 government troops were also wounded in the fierce battle on Tuesday afternoon and that the rebels also took casualties.

The military said the fighting erupted when about 80 Islamic militants tried to disrupt the construction of a road by soldiers in Tipo-tipo town on Basilan.

Army commandos rushed to the scene to defend the engineering unit, sparking a three-hour battle that forced dozens of local residents to flee their homes and farms.

REUTERS JK PM1430

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