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Thursday, January 28, 1999 Published at 14:20 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Philippines school clash ends peacefully

Philippine Muslims are battling for a separate homeland

Children trapped by fighting at a primary school in the south of the Philippines are safe, officials have said.

Early reports had said Muslim guerrillas were holding about 500 children and teachers hostage, but these were denied by President Joseph Estrada, who said it was a false alarm.

The president said around 50 children had taken refuge in the school in Capinpilan, near Midsayap, to avoid clashes between government troops and rebel forces.

Town officials said the suspected rebels left the school during the evening. They said about 40 students and 20 teachers remained in the building and the rest were thought to have gone home.

[ image: President Estrada:
President Estrada: "We are in control"
Major General Rolando Bautista had earlier said about 1,000 rebels had overpowered Capinpilan village, which was lightly defended.

The Mayor of Midsayap, Romeo Arana, said 70 teachers and 400 children from a number of local schools had gathered in the area for an English festival.

Reports said the rebels were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Front's leadership has already disowned anyone involved.

Peace talks planned

The incident came despite the implementation of a fresh ceasefire agreed by the government and the MILF, the main group fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the south.

Officials said news of the ceasefire may not have reached everyone on the ground, following three days of skirmishes in which at least 16 people died.

However BBC Manila Correspondent John McLean says a ceasefire is supposed to have been in place for the past two years, but has never been particularly solid.

Fresh peace talks are due to take place in February.

Muslim rebels have been fighting for independence in Mindanao since the early 1970s, and about 120,000 people have died in the conflict.

Peace has been elusive despite a 1996 government deal with the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front. The MILF and other rebel groups did not accept the agreement, which provided regional autonomy.

Most of the Philippines' 70 million people are Roman Catholics. The country's five million Muslims are concentrated in the south.

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