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 Wednesday, 25 December, 2002, 15:18 GMT
Philippine troops clash with rebels
Philippine troops on the island of Basilan
The army is trying to crack down on the rebels
A Philippine soldier and a suspected Abu Sayyaf militant have died in a gun battle between government forces and rebels on the southern island of Basilan.

The clash occurred on Wednesday when army troops investigated a report by residents of armed men in the town of Tuburan.

We are looking at different angles and definitely the MILP angle is one of them

Acmad Omar,
police commander
The government has stepped up operations against the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim group accused of having links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Separately, the death toll rose to 16 in a bombing that took place on Tuesday on the southern island of Mindanao. Another 15 were injured.

Police say they have deployed about 100 plainclothes officers to track members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is suspected of having carried out the bombing.

Police in the Philippines are on high alert throughout the Christmas period due to fear of attack by a third militant group, the Communist New People's Army.

The government has declared a unilateral four-day truce with the group, but is on alert in case of an attack on Thursday, the 34th anniversary of the founding of the Philippine Communist Party.

Mayor killed

Mayor Saudie Ampatuan was among those killed in Tuesday's bombing in the town of Datu Piang, where a mortar was detonated by remote control as he walked past.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied responsibility for the attack, saying he had relatives among the injured.

The army says it has detained a witness who saw a suspected follower of an MILF leader plant the bomb.

There are also reports that a suspect is in custody, but the Associated Press news agency said a police official denied that anyone had been detained.

"Our investigation is not yet finished," regional police commander Acmad Omar told AP.

"We are looking at different angles and definitely the MILP angle is one of them," he said.

A family feud has also been suggested as a possible motive.

Brother killed

The mayor's younger brother, his brother's wife and friend were killed on Saturday following an incident at a disco.

Philippine troops in the south of the country
The army has sent more troops to the area

His family is reported to have retaliated against two people related to suspects in the attacks.

In addition to the mayor the dead included a town councillor, treasurer and a bodyguard, the army said. Most of the victims were Muslims.

The southern Philippines has been a scene of separatist conflict for 30 years, led by Muslim rebels in the predominantly Catholic country.

The MILF have signed a ceasefire and peace talks with the government are expected to resume in Malaysia next month.

The group denies any connection to Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for a Muslim homeland, but which seems to engage primarily in kidnapping for profit.

See also:

24 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
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