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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 21:24 GMT 22:24 UK
Separatist clashes intensify in Mindanao
Map of Philippines
Mindanao: the separatist rebellion has lasted 22 years

The Philippines military says at least 80 people have been killed in an upsurge of fighting between government forces and Muslim separatist rebels in Mindanao.

The clashes came as the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), pulled out of peace talks with the government on Sunday.

Its leaders ordered an all-out attack on units of the Armed Forces of Philippines.

An army spokesman said 68 rebel fighters and eight soldiers had been killed since Friday.

He said MILF fighters seized two villages in North Cotabato province and opened fire on houses, leaving four civilians dead and 10 wounded. They also attacked the town of Carmen, wounding six people.

The MILF's chief military strategist, Mohammad Murad, said the rebels' decision to attack followed a government offensive on the perimeter of the rebels' main base of Camp Abubakar, in the town of Matanog, outside Cotabato city.

But he told a Philippines television station that the rebels would not attack places where there are civilians, such as shopping malls and schools. "Our target will be the Armed Forces of the Philippines," he said.

Clashes centre on key road

Philippines military officials have said the offensive, which began late last week, was aimed at dismantling MILF checkpoints along the Narciso Ramos highway.

Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado said the government could not allow what he called the "harassment" of vehicles passing through road to continue.

"We have to open that road. They claimed it's near Abubakar, but the right of the people to passage, for passage to that particular artery is going to be held paramount. And we are going to implement the law," he said on TV.

Three major highways to Cotabato city were closed due to the fighting and the fourth closed off to civilian traffic.

Official concern

In Manila, press reports said the government was so worried about the "crisis" in Mindanao that it was considering calling a special meeting of the National Security Council when the Philippines Congress resumes sitting later this month.

The MILF started it, we have to finish it

Government press secretary

Executive Secretary Ronaldo B. Zamora said a high-level group of officials on national security and foreign policy had agreed to meet daily to discuss the insurgency problem in the south.

Zamora said that in addition to the Abu Sayyaf hostage-taking on Jolo, the government was "very much concerned by the possible escalation (of the fighting) into a full-blown war".

Reiterating the government's stance, Press Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the operations against MILF forces in Matanog had to continue. "The MILF started it, we have to finish it to prevent future incidents where the rebels control major government highways,'' he said.

President Estrada
Estrada: 'terrorists' must be stopped
President Estrada earlier took a similar hard-line position.

"Some say we should stop military operations against terrorists for fear of driving away investors," he said.

"I say if we do nothing to stop the terrorists, no investor will ever think of coming or staying in the first place."

Calls for ceasefire

The increased violence brought expressions of concern from a number of quarters. Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday blamed both sides for the clashes and called for an immediate ceasefire.

"Because of broken agreements ... hundreds are being killed, thousands of Muslim, Christian and (tribal) Lumad families are fleeing for their lives," said Orlando Quevedo, president of the bishops' conference.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the number of people displaced by the conflict on Mindanao now totalled some 120,000 in three provinces.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

01 May 00 | Media reports
Separatists warn of 'all-out war'
01 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Hostage drama highlights bitter conflict
23 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine dream of Islamic state
20 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines peace talks off
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