Philippine rebels begin to leave occupied villages

Nearly 3,000 troops and police, backed by bomber aircraft, regained control of two occupied villages in North Cotabato province Monday.

Philippine soldier 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
Philippine soldier 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
Muslim guerrillas began withdrawing from several occupied southern Philippine villages Tuesday following fierce fighting with government troops that has displaced nearly 160,000 civilians during harvest time, officials said. Nearly 3,000 troops and police, backed by bomber aircraft, regained control of two occupied villages in North Cotabato province Monday. Army and police on Tuesday found abandoned at least six of the remaining 13 predominantly Christian villages that had been occupied by hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation rebels, police Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio said. The fierce exchanges of artillery and machine gunfire that began with Sunday's government assault have eased, but the crackle of gunfire could still be heard in some areas, Serapio said. Troops and police, along with some residents, returned to some of the abandoned villages to check for booby traps and land mines. They found burned-out homes and looted farms, raising questions on how quickly the burgeoning number of evacuees could return to normal lives. "There are already withdrawals in some of the areas of concern," Serapio told The Associated Press by telephone from an abandoned village, called Takipan, in North Cotabato's Pikit farming town. "But we could still hear gunfire in some areas," he said. "We hope we can finish all these clearing operations soon." Takipan village leader Andro Lomibao, who accompanied Serapio and a police contingent on an inspection of his neighborhood, stumbled on a depressing sight: burned homes, bicycles and a guava tree. Cooking pots were scattered everywhere. "I don't know when all my neighbors can return. I'm seeing at least five houses gutted by fire," Lomibao told The AP. As troops were inspecting the villages, a soldier was wounded when he stepped on a land mine apparently planted by the rebels, Serapio said. The Philippine government gave the rebels an ultimatum to withdraw by Friday and started attacking them when they failed to do so. Government figures showed 83 homes had been destroyed. At least one soldier was killed and 15 others were wounded. An army spokesman, Maj. Armand Rico, said up to 31 rebels may have been killed in the clashes, but the rebels disputed the figure, saying only four men died. Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the guerrillas were repositioning in line with the government's call for them to withdraw. But he said the pace of the withdrawal depended on the situation on the ground and called on army troops to stop firing. "They are repositioning to a place safe and far enough to prevent exchanges of gunfire from both sides," Kabalu said. He lamented the high of number of refugees, calling them "a product of war." "Who wants a conflict like this?" Kabalu said, adding the rebels were open to a dialogue and did not want to prolong the suffering of civilians. Television footage showed residents hastily fleeing their homes with precious water buffaloes but carrying few other belongings. Some worried about their farms, saying they were about to harvest their rice, corn and other crops when the conflict flared. Government officials have said they have enough food and other supplies to cater for the displaced. The U.N. World Food Program said it was sending 400 tons of rice for the displaced. The Office of Civil Defense reported the number of refugees at 159,123 in 56 villages in seven townships. Kabalu said most of those in evacuation centers were Christians while Muslim residents tended to stay with relatives. The latest flare-up in fighting in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south - the traditional Muslim homeland - comes at a crucial time in ongoing peace talks between the government and the rebels, who have been waging a bloody insurgency for self-rule for decades. The two sides, which signed a 2003 cease-fire, had reached agreement covering the territorial makeup of a future expanded Muslim region, but the signing of the accord was halted last week by the Supreme Court. The court was acting on a petition filed by southern Christian politicians who are wary of losing land and power to the Muslims. The agricultural province of more than a million people is still recovering from a typhoon, which ravaged farmlands last June. Gov. Jesus Sacdalan said over the weekend that the fighting has made the recovery more difficult.