Monday, August 11, 2008

Philippine military pound rebel Muslim positions

ALEOSAN, Philippines (AFP) — The Philippine military pounded rebel Muslim positions in the south as fighting intensified, eyewitnesses said Monday, after the country's Supreme Court stalled a long-awaited peace deal.

The military shot off a barrage of artillery and mortar fire from a muddy mound next to a highway, while helicopter gun ships swooped low over trees firing rockets, an AFP reporter said.

It was the biggest flare up of violence between the two sides since August 4, when the Supreme Court ordered the government to drop plans to establish an extended Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.

The decision saw a number of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels take control of mainly Christian villages and towns in North Cotabato province, a poor farming region in the southern island of Mindanao.

The military says 1,500 MILF rebels have "dug in" in remote villages in North Cotabato province, and the fighting has forced more than 22,000 people from their homes and into government refugee centres.

Despite a government ultimatum to leave, many rebels began building defencive positions in some of the villages surrounded by thick forest.

Military vice chief of staff Lieutenant General Cardozo Luna said the rebels were "well dug" in and more than 2,000 troops were involved in the operation, including artillery units and helicopter gunships.

"The MILF rebels have defied their own leadership and have refused to leave the area," he said.

He said the rebels were supposed to comply with a government deal with MILF leadership to move out of the disputed areas, but "they just re-positioned and occupied other villages."

Authorities have closed the main road linking Cotabato and Davao City in Mindanao, and set up military check points.

Luna said the military operation was not directed against MILF in general, but a group headed by MILF commander Umbra Kato, who is no longer following the orders of the main rebel leadership.

Although no casualty figures have been released, media reports have said at least three government soldiers and an unknown number of rebels were killed.

Armed MILF fighters had occupied areas around a number of Christian towns in north Cotabato last week after the Supreme Court issued an order to suspend a draft homeland accord between the government and MILF.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging a 30-year guerrilla campaign for a separate Islamic state in the south of the largely-Christian Philippines.

The rebels signed a ceasefire with the government in 2003 to open the way for peace talks, and both sides said in July they had completed a draft agreement for recognition of MILF's "ancestral domain" in the south.

However, local officials in Mindanao opposed the agreement and filed a suit with the Supreme Court, leading to a suspension of the draft accord and raising new tensions with MILF.

The court has asked the government to submit arguments defending the agreement.

Despite the fighting, local elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) proceeded Monday.