10,000 Flee Fighting in Southern Philippines

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About 10,000 people have fled their homes amid fighting between Muslim rebels and government forces in the southern Philippines, a civil defense official said Tuesday.

The displaced accounts for about one in seven residents of the towns of Payao, Alicia and Talusan on Mindanao Island, home of a decades-old Muslim insurgency, said provincial disaster monitoring Chief Adriano Fuego.

The government said the fighting and the evacuations were an offshoot of a military operation against "lawless elements" engaged in kidnappings, but Muslim rebels have alleged their forces have been attacked as well.

"There was advance news, like text messages on the cellphones they (rebels) would attack the municipalities. There were text messages going around saying other municipalities would be attacked," Fuego told Agence France Presse.

Residents took refuge with their relatives shortly before Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces occupied several schools in these areas, he said, adding their flight had prevented potential civilian casualties.

The MILF attacks triggered military air strikes and a ground assault on Monday that the government said left two soldiers and six gunmen dead.

The same group of rebels targeted by the air strikes was blamed for ambushes that killed four soldiers and four policemen in the same general area on Thursday last week.

The fighting came just two days after 19 Special Forces commandos were gunned down by MILF fighters after they strayed into rebel territory on the adjacent island of Basilan.

At least 35 people have been killed in Mindanao and Basilan in a week of fighting.

The violence has cast a shadow over the government's extended peace negotiations with the MILF which began in 2003 and includes a ceasefire.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said Tuesday soldiers and police were advancing on the ground on the gunmen, who were hidden in bunkers and trenches and believed to be holding a local businesswoman hostage.

"There are no air strikes (today)," he told AFP. "What we have now is clearing operations."

The operation is against Juaning Abdusalam, the alleged brains of several kidnappings in the area, army spokesman Major Harold Cabunoc said.

"He is not MILF, he is a bandit and the (village) officials even had a resolution stating there is no identified MILF camp there."

He stressed that most civilian residents around the gunmen's positions had fled before the fighting began.

Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF vice chairman, denied that his group coddled lawless elements, while accusing the military of triggering the hostilities by shelling a major MILF training base near Payao last week.

"What is happening now is that air raids are continuing since yesterday," Jaafar told AFP in a telephone interview, contradicting Cabunoc, the national army spokesman.

"We have ordered our fighters on the ground to stand down and respect the peace process," Jaafar said.

He alleged the military had also started the Basilan clash by sending Special Forces troops into another MILF camp.

Despite calls for "an all-out war" against the rebels, President Benigno Aquino said on Monday, that the peace process with the MILF would continue.

Aquino's spokesman Ricky Carandang said Tuesday that the problem of wanted suspects fleeing into MILF sanctuaries "complicates the issue."

"We are going through the process. We are reaching out to the leadership of the MILF," he said in a radio interview.