Page last updated at 07:58 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 08:58 UK

Philippines fighting 'kills 16'

Philippine combat troops occupy the Muslim rebel camp in Mount Gurain in Lanao del Sur province, 20 Sept
Fierce fighting erupted in the southern Philippines at the start of August

The Philippines military says it killed at least 16 Muslim rebels in renewed fighting in the marshlands of southern Mindanao this week.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said it had killed more than 20 government troops over two days.

Fighting has resumed in the southern area since the collapse of the latest round of peace talks.

International humanitarian groups have expressed concern about the renewed violence, and the high civilian toll.

Reports estimate that about 300 people have been killed since the failure of a draft deal between the government and the MILF in August.

The military says it is seeking three MILF commanders accused of attacks on Christian communities last month.

It said that nine rebels died in a seven hour battle with army troops on Tuesday, in Datu Saudi Ampatuan township in Maguindanao province.

Major Armand Rico, spokesman of the military's Eastern Mindanao Command, told reporters a further seven guerrillas were killed in artillery strikes in the same area.

A displaced Filipino girl receives a sack of rice from World Food Programme, 17 Sept
Aid agencies say the scale of the human suffering is being ignored
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the military reports of casualties, saying no rebel had died and only one was wounded in Tuesday's clashes. He said that at least 20 soldiers were killed by MILF fighters on Wednesday.

The war of words followed the violence on the ground, with the military countering that the rebels were making up numbers as part of a propaganda war.

"Our troops have stumbled onto a major rebel base in Liguasan Marsh where one of the renegade MILF leaders was believed to be hiding," Major Rico told reporters.

'As bad as Georgia'

The scale of renewed fighting and the extent of civilian suffering is causing analysts and humanitarian workers to express concern.

"The international community needs to pay it much more attention than it is getting," Alan Davis, director of special projects for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting told the BBC.

"The scale and plight of evacuees and refugees is every bit as bad as Georgia - but nobody is much paying attention," he said.

The European Union said last week that a high number of civilians were being killed "indiscriminately". It said the government and Muslim separatist rebels should return to the negotiating table.

"The European Union is deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Mindanao, the growing number of civilian casualties and displaced persons. It particularly condemns the indiscriminate killing of civilians and calls for those responsible to face the due process of law," the group said in a statement.

"The European Union is also concerned that civilian militias may become embroiled in the violence. This is particularly worrying and has the potential to inflame sectarian violence," it added.

Several human rights and aid groups working in the south have reported that the scale of the fighting and the size of the human tragedy that is unfolding have been ignored.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in the Philippines said that Mindanao was suffering its worst fighting since 2003, that up to a million people have been affected by the hostilities, and that tens of thousands of them have had to flee their homes.

Talks collapse

The Philippine government and the MILF had been due to sign a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, a key plank of a peace deal.

But non-Muslim residents and politicians in several southern provinces protested at what they thought would mean a loss of their lands, and the Supreme Court blocked the deal.

Violence had already erupted with brutal attacks by three MILF commanders, who the high command have since disowned.

Neighbouring state Malaysia had been mediating peace talks, and has received a delegation from the Philippine government of President Gloria Arroyo explaining the deal's collapse.

But Mrs Arroyo has also said her government would not resume talks "with a gun pointed at our head".

The 11,000-member Muslim separatist group has been fighting for nearly 40 years to achieve self-determination in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines.

The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and hindered development of the area's rich natural resources.

Is Philippine peace process dead?
08 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippines to scrap peace panel
03 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Peacekeepers to stay in Mindanao
28 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine autonomy deal scrapped
21 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: The Philippines
23 Aug 08 |  Country profiles

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