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Philippine rebels stand down after six-day battle

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, July 3 (Reuters) The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines ordered its forces to stand down after six days of sporadic fighting on the southern island of Mindanao, a guerilla spokesman said today.

Security and rebel forces have traded blame for starting the fighting last Wednesday around Shariff Aguak town, where seven people were killed by a bomb intended for the powerful governor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan.

''Our forces on the ground were ordered to stand down,'' Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told Reuters by phone.

''They were ordered not to attack and would fire only if threatened by the enemy. We're keeping our position.'' Kabalu said the situation remained ''tense and dangerous'' as paramilitary forces continued to shell MILF positions in two towns near the vast marshlands on Mindanao's central region.

Church and non-government organisations said thousands of people from seven towns in Maguindanao province have fled their homes, swelling evacuation centres that lack food, drinking water, clothing and bedding.

They expect more civilians to abandon their homes and farms after a buffer zone was setup by Malaysian peace monitors to allow people to move safely from the conflict area.

''In the name of peace, for the sake of civilians, please hold your fire,'' Jose Colin Bagaforo, auxiliary bishop of Cotabato, said in an appeal to government and Muslim rebel forces, aired by the Roman Catholic church-owned radio station.

Relief workers said they feared the fighting may spill over to neighbouring towns and escalate to a full-blown conflict and put at risk the Malaysian-brokered peace talks, stalled in May, over the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland.

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.

Last week, the rebels had filed a formal protest with the government's ceasefire panel after soldiers fired shells on rebel positions in Shariff Aguak without provocation.

Army officials said none of its soldiers was involved in the clashes. The military did move reinforcements to army bases in the area, saying troops were sent to prevent fighting from spilling into other areas and threatening the ceasefire.

The paramilitary forces are civilians trained and armed by the military to help defend their communities, but analysts say they are used by local politicians as private armies.

Kabalu said the MILF was blaming local politicians for the violence, accusing Ampatuan of ignoring appeals from Malaysian peace monitors and from government and rebel ceasefire panels to restrain the paramilitary forces.

REUTERS SHR SSC1442

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