Muslim rebels occupy new Philippine villages

August 9, 2008

Muslim rebels occupy new Philippine villages

MANILA, Philippines: Muslim separatist rebels withdrew from some southern Philippine villages but allegedly occupied others after the government warned them to pull out or be removed by force, officials said Saturday.

A mayor on the island of Mindanao said Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas entered three villages in his area on Saturday and raised a rebel flag over one of them.

“They are taunting the government,” said Manual Rabara, the mayor of Midsayap township.

The government had given about 800 guerrillas until 10 a.m. Friday to vacate several other villages they had occupied in violation of a cease-fire agreement. Officials accused them of burning houses, destroying farms, stealing cattle and driving thousands of people from their homes.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said rebels had “community-based” forces in two of the three Midsayap villages before Saturday. He said he was unaware of any rebels in the third.

He blamed attacks by government-armed militiamen for holding up the withdrawal. The provincial governor said two civilians were wounded in an exchange of fire.

But officials on both sides said they were working to enable the pullback to resume.

The ultimatum came at a crucial point in peace negotiations between the government and the rebels, who have been waging a decades-long insurgency for self-rule.

The two sides had reached an agreement covering the territory of a future Muslim homeland but the signing of the accord was stopped earlier this week by the Supreme Court, acting on a petition filed by Christian politicians in North Cotabato, the province that includes Midsayap.

Army Brig. Gen. Reynaldo Sealana, who is overseeing the cease-fire, said rebels began pulling out of several villages early Friday only to halt the move and take “defensive positions” in one village. Sealana said they were demanding that government troops withdraw from a nearby hamlet to avoid any clash.

He said the soldiers were withdrawn Saturday and that officials including international monitors were arranging for the rebels to move out.

The government initially extended the Friday deadline for 24 hours and appeared to be giving the rebels more time.

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