Philippine soldiers in new clash with rebels

(AP) - Muslim rebels clashed anew with Philippine troops Wednesday, wounding one soldier and threatening a fragile peace process after a guerrilla rampage killed at least 37 people and displaced about 44,000.

About 30 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels attacked an army patrol base at Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao province, and the military responded with mortar and howitzer fire, regional military spokesman Maj. Armand Rico said. A lieutenant was wounded, he said.

"The enemy is withdrawing and we're conducting pursuit and blocking operations," he said.

The latest fighting fanned more tensions in the southern Philippines, where a 2003 cease-fire and an uncertain peace process between the rebels and the government is at risk of unraveling following Monday's carnage in which the rebels shot or hacked to death civilians in five coastal towns.

The rebel leadership denied ordering the attacks, saying they were launched by renegade local commanders frustrated at delays to finalizing a peace agreement.

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Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno announced a 5 million peso (US$113,000) arrest bounty on two rebel commanders ї Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Bravo, who led the latest attacks, and Ameril Umbra Kato, who led the occupation of predominantly Christian villages in the south last week.

In a statement on their website, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front warned the government against launching an all-out offensive, saying it would be "the most serious blunder that this sitting regime could commit."

Filipinos will be caught again in the "never-ending vicious cycle of political and economic instability," the statement said.

The rebels and the government agreed on a preliminary accord to grant Muslims an expanded autonomous region, but the Supreme Court ї acting on a petition by Christian politicians ї blocked its signing.

Philippine troops and police were being redeployed to the area to prevent a repeat of Monday's rebel raids and to reassure jittery civilians.

Cellphone text messages spreading rumors of an impending rebel attack on Iligan city, a major industrial hub in the south, triggered panic and thousands ran to City Hall to seek cover late Tuesday. The army said they have sufficient forces to protect the city.

The national disaster agency said about 44,000 people fled their homes during the latest fighting, most of them taking refuge in 19 evacuation centers in nearby Iligan and Ozamiz cities.

The World Food Program said it was sending 250 tons of rice worth US$207,000 to assist a total of 60,000 people who have been displaced by the violence.

Police forces in Manila also were placed on full alert for possible bomb attacks.

Chief rebel negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said if nothing comes out of the current peace process with the government, the guerrillas will return to war.

The 11,000-strong rebels have been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation for decades.

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