Philippine troops launch offensive against rebels

August 10th, 2008 - 6:15 pm ICT by IANS  

Manila, Aug 10 (Xinhua) The Philippine Army launched Sunday an offensive against Muslim rebels occupying villages in southern Philippines, despite a ceasefire deal agreed by both parties. According to media reports, government troops traded mortar and artillery fire with hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in at least three towns in North Cotabato province, about 930 km south of Manila.

The military confirmed that two of their soldiers were injured in the fighting that began Sunday morning.

However, local media reported one death and five injuries as of Sunday afternoon with fears that the number of casualties would grow as the clashes intensified.

Television channels also aired footages showing civilians fleeing homes and appealing to both sides to return to the negotiation table.

In a statement released to media, acting chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Command Centre Georg Segovia said Sunday that the army actions were meant to restore law and order in those areas.

“All peaceful means have been exhausted to resolve the conflicts and we are now compelled to resort to the application of justifiable force.”

Segovia said the government clearance operation is not directed toward MILF as a group but against a group that ignored the agreement of government and MILF leadership to withdraw from the 10 villages in the province that they allegedly occupied.

However, MILF’s chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal described the government’s offensive as a “gross violation on the ceasefire”.

The Philippines government last Thursday gave the rebels a 24-hour deadline to vacate occupied towns. Through negotiation, the MILF leadership later in the day agreed to pull out its guerrillas.

The 12,000-strong MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, has been fighting for a Muslim state for nearly four million Muslims residing in Mindanao region since the 1970s.

Sporadic skirmishes erupted between the rebels and government forces in the south since Monday when the country’s Supreme Court halted the signing of a Muslim homeland agreement.

The agreement is seen instrumental to a final peace accord but it had met protests from the Christian groups in the South and strong criticism from the opposition of the administration.

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