Fighting delays withdrawal of Muslim rebels from Philippine towns

Arab World Materials 9 August 2008 13:46 (UTC +04:00)

Sporadic fighting between Philippine troops and Muslim separatist rebels delayed the planned withdrawal of guerrillas who occupied several villages in a southern province, a military officer said Saturday.

Brigadier General Reynaldo Sealana said the rebels were preparing to leave North Cotabato when they clashed with government militiamen in Dunguan village, which was designated as the guerrillas' point of exit to nearby Maguindanao province, dpa reported.

"When the militiamen saw the MILF, they thought they were under attack so there was an exchange of fire," he said.

No casualties were reported in the firefight.

Hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels last month took over nine villages in three North Cotabato towns, 930 kilometres south of Manila, displacing more than 1,500 families.

Authorities said the rebel encroachment escalated after the Supreme Court halted on Monday the signing of a Muslim homeland deal between the MILF and the Philippine government that would have expanded an existing autonomous Muslim region.

Sealana, co-chairman of a joint commission implementing a ceasefire between the MILF and the Philippine government, said the rebels requested that soldiers pull out from Dunguan village to allow them to leave.

"I told them I can do that to show good faith, so we will ask the military to pull out," he said. "We are talking with the different sides right now (to complete the withdrawal of the MILF forces from North Cotabato)."

Sealana said he hoped the rebel redeployment would be completed on Saturday "to show that the tension has ceased and the residents can return to their homes."

The signing of the ancestral domain agreement would have been a crucial step towards resuming formal peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF, which have been stalled since December.

Under the deal, the Philippines would hold a plebiscite in 2009 to expand the existing six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to include an additional of more than 700 villages.

The proposal also provides for the establishment of a new form of government for Muslims after a final peace deal is reached.

Critics alleged the deal violated the constitution and asked the Supreme Court to stop the signing. A hearing is scheduled for next week on the merits of the petition to nullify the agreement.

The 11,000-strong MILF has been fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao since 1978. It agreed to hold peace talks with the government in 1997.