Filipino soldiers in action during clashes with MILF forces Saturday 27 Jan 2007 in Midsayap town in North Cotabato province. The MILF accused troops of attacking rebel areas, which was strongly denied by the military. (Mindanao Examiner Photo/Mark Navales)
MAGUINDANAO (Mindanao Examiner / 30 Jan) – Aid workers began a grueling task Tuesday of helping thousands of mostly Muslim refugees who fled their homes after fighting broke out between separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels and security forces in southern Philippines.
MILF rebels and security forces agreed to a halt in fighting in the province of North Cotabato and both sides returned to their bases, army officials said.
But tension remains high in Midsayap town where the fighting killed at least 2 people and wounded two more when Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerillas and troops traded gunfire.
“It is all silent now. The fighting finally stopped and we are helping refugees return to their homes.” The spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, Col. Julieto Ando, told the Mindanao Examiner.
Philippine military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon has ordered troops to halt attacks against MILF forces after fighting broke out Friday and continued sporadically over the weekend.
Thousands of civilians, afraid they would be caught in the cross fire, abandoned their homes in at least 5 villages. Red Cross and Red Crescent workers and volunteers arrived in the town, with them were medicines and food, but more are needed for tens of thousands of people now in temporary shelters.
The rebels are currently negotiating peace with Manila, but despite a cease-fire signed in 2001, clashes with troops occasionally occur.
Mohager Iqbal, the MILF chief peace negotiator, said the fighting broke out after armed militias and Christian landowners tried to drive away local Muslim villagers, some of them members of the MILF, who owned lands in the area.
Iqbal said the soldiers sided with the militias and attacked rebel forces, sparking sporadic, but fierce clashes.
Government planes, backed by combat helicopters and ground forces, assaulted Saturday rebel strongholds after accusing some MILF fighters of attacking Christian farmers and army-led militias in the province.
Iqbal accused the military of violating the fragile truce. Ando said MILF rebels attacked farmers and militias harvesting coconuts in Midsayap, triggering a firefight.
“It was the rebels who started this fight. They attacked people who were just harvesting coconuts. The MILF violated the truce and we will file a protest with the government peace panel,” Ando said. (Mindanao Examiner)