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Page last updated at 10:41 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 11:41 UK

Manila court mulls autonomy deal

Local villagers watch army troops in North Cotabato on 12 August 2008
There has been fierce fighting in the south linked to the autonomy deal

The Philippine Supreme Court has begun a hearing on a controversial territorial agreement with Muslim separatists in the south of the nation.

The government had agreed to expand an existing Muslim autonomous zone, in a bid to end years of fighting.

But Christian communities launched an appeal, arguing the deal is unconstitutional and could increase sectarian divisions.

Fierce fighting broke out after the court suspended the deal on 4 August.

Several hundred guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) occupied 15 villages in North Cotabato - next to the autonomous zone.

Their action triggered military air strikes and artillery assaults. Casualties were reported on both sides - exact numbers are unclear - and 160,000 people were displaced.

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Troops have driven the rebels back, but villages have been reduced to rubble. A military leader said the security situation in the region remained "volatile and fluid".

Early on Friday troops defused a bomb at a primary school in the province. On Thursday a similar device was defused at a bus station in a nearby town.

Philippine officials say they were likely retaliatory measures from the rebels.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in almost four decades of fighting in the south.

The Philippine government had hoped that the autonomy deal - which would see the existing region expanded by 712 villages - would kick-start talks with the rebels.

But the issue is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.


SEE ALSO
Philippine displaced begin return
14 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Thousands flee Philippine clashes
11 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine rebels leave villages
08 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Manila warns 'occupying' rebels
07 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Court blocks Philippine land deal
04 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine rebel talks reach deal
28 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: The Philippines
12 Feb 08 |  Country profiles


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