COTABATO CITY (Zamboanga Journal / 30 Jun) Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces killed at least 20 government militias in fierce clashes in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, scene of a recent bloody bomb attack blamed by the military to the country's largest Muslim rebel group.
An MILF fighter was also killed and ten others were wounded in sporadic clashes since Wednesday, said Eid Kabalu, a rebel spokesman. "Rebels have killed at least 20 government militias and about two dozens are also wounded in the fighting. One of our own was also killed and 10 MILF soldiers were wounded," he said.
Kabalu said rebel forces have overran a military command post in Shariff Aguak, where 5 people were killed and 14 others injured in last week's bomb explosion blamed on the MILF.
"There is a lull in the fighting today, but rebel forces are in full alert for possible new waves of attacks by the militias," he said. The fighting erupted after the army-back militias attacked MILF strongholds, breaking a five-year old fragile truce in the restive region.
The military denied the allegations and said rebels fired rockets on an army post, manned by soldiers and militias, in the village of Koloy in Shariff Aguak, sparking a firefight that spread to four other villages.
"CVO elements from (the villages of) Tapikan, Koloy, Nabundas and Pulang Lupa, all of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao were simultaneously attacked by heavily armed group (of rebels)," said Capt. Jose Ritche Pabilonia, a spokesman for the Southern Command.
Pabilonia said the fighting between rebels and militias started late Wednesday, but he could not confirm if there were government casualties.
He said more soldiers were sent to the town to reinforce security forces in the area. "One company from the Army's 75th Infantry Battalion and another from 25th Infantry Battalion proceeded to the headquarters of the 64th Infantry Battalion to strengthen and reinforced the engaged troops," he said.
Pabilonia said soldiers were sent to the town to protect civilians and vital government installations from the fighting. "Troops were in the area to protect the civilians and vital government installations and to pacify the fighting between rebels and militias," he said.
Hundreds of civilians have fled their homes for fear they would be caught in the fighting.
Kabalu earlier warned that the fighting would escalate in other areas and could affect the peace talks if the militias continue to attack MILF forces. "We fear this trouble will worsen if they continue to attack us. We are only fighting back in self-defense," he said.
Police and military have tagged two senior MILF leaders as behind the bombing in Shariff Aguak on June 23. The bomb, security officials said, was intended to assassinate Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, a charged strongly denied by the MILF.
"That's not true; the MILF had nothing to do with the bombing. The military is only using the issue to justify attacks on us," Kabalu said.
He said most of the militias fighting the MILF were allegedly followers of Ampatuan, a staunch supporter of President Gloria Arroyo. "The militias belong to the private armies of Ampatuan, there could be hundreds of them," he said.
The governor could not be reached for comment, but Nori Unas, the provincial administrator, said one of those killed in the bombing was the nephew of Ampatuan and that the bomb attack targeted the governor who was unhurt in the blast.
The bomb, he said, was left near a parked vehicle on the market where the politician's convoy had passed. "The governor was obviously the target of the attack," Unas said, adding, Ampatuan's convoy was passing when the bomb went off.
The latest fighting coincided with the failure of government and rebel peace negotiators to sign an agreement last month on the Muslim ancestral domain.
Ancestral domain refers to the MILF demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland. It is the single most important issue in the peace negotiations before the rebel group can reach a political settlement.
In September, government and rebel peace negotiators have signed several agreements centered on the ancestral domain -- its concept, territories and resources, and how the MILF shall govern these places.
The MILF is demanding that large areas in Mindanao be included in the proposed ancestral domain. This include the five Muslim autonomous provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, and other areas in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces, where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes, but government negotiators disagreed, saying, Manila will not allow the country to be dismembered.
President Arroyo opened peace talks in 2001 with the MILF, the country's largest separatist rebel group fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern region, in an effort to put an end to more than three decades of fighting in Mindanao.
In February, security and rebel forces clashed for weeks in Shariff Aguak town and left more than a dozen people dead from both sides. The fighting erupted after the MILF opposed a provincial government road construction that rebels claimed would encroach into their territories in the village of Datu Unsay.