Philippine soldiers, Muslim rebels clash ahead of homeland deal

Arab World Materials 4 August 2008 10:31 (UTC +04:00)

Philippine troops and Muslim rebels clashed ahead of the signing of a controversial agreement on the expansion of a Muslim autonomous region in the country's troubled south, a military spokesman said Monday.

Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said the fighting erupted Sunday when Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels fired on an army encampment in Midsayap town in Cotabato province, 960 kilometres south of Manila, reported dpa.

Brawner said the rebels used high-powered weapons, including a 50-caliber machine gun, but there were no reported casualties on both sides as the soldiers repulsed the guerrillas.

Army chief Lieutenant General Victor Ibrado said he has ordered his men to respect the primacy of the peace talks between the government and the MILF but to be ready to repulse any attacks.

"The primacy of the peace process remains to be on top of our priorities," he said. "But these attacks could not just be allowed to go on. Rest assured our troops will continue to protect the people from similar hostilities."

The hostilities erupted as MILF and government negotiators prepared to sign in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday an agreement that would expand the existing six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Several local officials in the area have opposed the deal and have filed a petition before the Supreme Court to stop the signing of the agreement.

Under the agreement, a plebiscite would be held in 2009 to add more than 700 villages to the ARMM. A new form of government would also be set up for Muslims after a final peace deal is reached.

The MILF is the largest Muslim rebel group fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern region of Mindanao. It has been waging the secessionist struggle since 1978, but agreed to hold peace talks with the government in 1997.