Talks at risk as Manila and rebels trade barbs

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MANILA, Sep 27 (Reuters) The Philippines army and the country's largest Muslim separatist group today accused each other of breaking a four-year ceasefire, as a flare-up of fighting in the troubled south threatens planned peace talks.

The military accused members of the Moro Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a truce in 2003, of helping a band of Abu Sayyaf rebels during a firefight on Basilan island on Tuesday.

But MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said Philippines troops had entered rebel territory without coordinating with a ceasefire panel, and attacked a MILF camp in the Tipo-tipo area. A fierce three-hour battle ensued.

''Our troops were only defending their positions,'' Kabalu told reporters. ''There were no Abu Sayyaf members in the area as the military has been claiming. We already filed a protest before the ceasefire panel.'' The tension between the army and MILF is raising doubts over the scheduled resumption of informal peace talks next month in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Tuesday's firefight broke a lull of almost a month on Basilan island, where the army is pursuing around 50 members of Abu Sayyaf, a small Islamic militant group with ties to Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

The army is filing a counter complaint against MILF, said Lieutenant-General Nelson Allaga, commander of military forces in the southern Philippines.

''It appears the MILF rebels have been colluding with the Abu Sayyaf group,'' Allaga said. ''We were also surprised to discover the MILF were also in the area fighting against our troops.'' Two months ago, planned talks between the government and the MILF were postponed after fighting broke out on July 10 in Albarka town, where 14 soldiers were killed, including 10 who were beheaded.

Since May 2007, the negotiations have been postponed at least four times due to fighting. MILF has also complained that Manila is unwilling to offer a new formula to end the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people since the late 1960s.

Talks, brokered by Malaysia, were stalled in September 2006 over the size and wealth to be accorded to a proposed ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.

REUTERS ARB DS1240

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