Rebels seize army outpost in south Philippines
Manila, Jun 29: Philippine Muslim rebels seized an army outpost on the southern island of Mindanao today as fighting erupted between guerrillas and troops hunting suspects in a bomb attack last week.
Malaysian ceasefire monitors rushed to prevent hostilities from escalating and affecting peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim separatist group in the south of the mainly Catholic country.
Security and rebel forces blamed each other for starting the battle in villages around Shariff Aguak town, where seven people were killed on Friday by a bomb intended for the powerful governor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan.
''Our forces were just defending themselves from heavy mortar shelling since Wednesday night,'' Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, said by phone from Mindanao. ''We did not start the fight.
We're now holding our own line.'' Kabalu said the MILF attacked and seized an outpost manned by paramilitary forces to stop the shelling of Muslim villages near a sprawling marshland in the central region of Mindanao.
''Based on reports we're getting from the field, our forces had killed or wounded about 20 members of a local paramilitary force,'' Kabalu said, adding the MILF would give up the outpost if government forces stopped shelling rebel positions.
Lumala Gunting, police chief of Maguindanao province, said it was the MILF that provoked the hostilities when rebels ambushed a team of security forces on its way to serve arrest warrants against guerrillas suspected in the attacks on June 23.
''There were many fatalities on the enemy side,'' Gunting told reporters. ''We cannot determine the exact number because fighting is still raging.'' Since 1997, the MILF has been negotiating with Manila to end a nearly 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development of the resource-rich south.
In February, the two sides had hoped to strike a deal for a homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south by mid-September, but talks have dragged over how much territory to sign over and how to split the region's rich resources.
A member of the government's peace panel and a rebel leader were more pragmatic recently, saying it may not be possible to sign any agreement in the next three months.
The MILF wants an ancestral homeland based on the territory of Muslim sultanates in the 14th century, but the government is only willing to expand the homeland to 130 villages outside an existing autonomous area for Muslims.
The rebels also demand full control to explore and exploit resources such as oil, minerals, timber and agricultural goods -- something not allowed in the Philippine constitution.