(dpa) - Hundreds of Muslim separatist rebels have occupied several towns in a southern Philippine province whose officials have opposed a controversial land deal between the guerrillas and the government, officials said Thursday.
More than 1,500 families have been forced to leave their homes as Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels took over the towns in North Cotabato province, 930 kilometres south of Manila, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said.
He said the MILF rebels have been involved in the burning of houses, destruction of plantations, looting and cattle rustling since last month.
"We are giving those individuals that forcibly occupied these areas 24 hours to vacate," he said at a news conference in Manila. "Otherwise, they shall be forcibly separated from the area. We cannot allow these things to happen."
Puno said additional soldiers and police officers will be dispatched to enforce the law in the affected towns and ensure that displaced residents are able to return to their homes.
The massing of MILF rebels in North Cotabato came in the wake of a Philippine Supreme Court ruling Monday to stop the signing of an agreement that called for the expansion of an existing autonomous Muslim region in the southern region of Mindanao, which includes North Cotabato.
The Philippine government and the MILF were supposed to sign the deal on ancestral domain Tuesday, but Catholic politicians in Mindanao asked the Supreme Court to stop the signing and to nullify the agreement for allegedly violating the constitution.
North Cotabato provincial officials were among the politicians who have voiced opposition to the land deal. They have also led street protests in the province against the agreement.
The signing of the ancestral domain deal is a key step in resuming formal peace talks between the government and the MILF, which have been stalled since December.
Aside from expanding the existing six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao by holding a plebiscite in more than 700 villages in 2009, the agreement also provides for the establishment of a new form of government for Muslims after a final peace deal is reached.
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.