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Monday, 10 February, 2003, 11:15 GMT
Philippines army masses for attack
Philippines army troops in Mindanao
Manila wants to rid the area of Muslim rebels

The Philippines defence minister says his forces are preparing to attack a stronghold of Muslim separatist guerrillas in the south of the country, in spite of a ceasefire agreement.

The armed forces say hundreds of troops have been deployed to pursue armed kidnappers who have taken refuge in an area frequented by guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Military officers say some 22,000 people have fled the area in anticipation of renewed fighting.

A senior army officer on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao says some 2,500 soldiers have been deployed in or near the municipality of Pikit.

Pikit is a stronghold of the MILF.

MILF guerrillas are campaigning for independence for the Muslim minority in the south of this mainly Christian country

But a 2001 ceasefire is supposed to be in effect while the guerrillas talk peace with the government.

The area has already seen some fighting in recent weeks.

Government forces are pursuing a group of armed Muslim kidnappers called the Pentagon Gang.

The United States regards the Pentagon Gang as terrorists.

But the gang members have taken refuge in the MILF stronghold in Pikit and pursuing troops have exchanged fire with MILF guerrillas.

Now, the defence minister, Angelo Reyes, says his men are going to launch an assault on the area.

The armed forces estimates that there are several hundred armed men in their way.

The total includes both Pentagon Gang members and MILF guerrillas.

A spokesman for the MILF has accused the government of provoking confrontation.

See also:

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