Clash between Muslim rebels and military leaves 27 dead
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A deadly clash between the military and Muslim separatists from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has left 27 dead on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. The fighting occurred during a visit to the region by President Gloria Arroyo.
AFP - Twenty Muslim separatists and seven soldiers have been killed in fighting in the southern Philippines during a visit to the region by President Gloria Arroyo, a military spokesman said.
About 60 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels attacked a security patrol Thursday near the town of Mamasapano on the island of Mindanao, about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the provincial capital where Arroyo was scheduled to visit, said Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ponce.
Arroyo went ahead with her visit on Friday, as clashes escalated and 20 MILF fighters were killed, he added. Seven soldiers were also killed the same day.
"Clearing operations are still ongoing," Ponce said, adding that five soldiers had been wounded and taken to a military hospital near here.
Arroyo was aware of the ongoing fighting nearby during her visit to Maguindanao province, said a provincial official who was part of the welcoming party.
"The president appeared unmindful of her security, anyway the fighting was far away," the official added.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu confirmed the clashes but alleged the military started it when they attacked a community where some of the rebels' families lived.
He made no casualty reports.
The military said the attacks were led by Ameril Umbrakato, a hardline MILF leader who is one of the country's most wanted men following a series of deadly attacks on Christian communities in the Mindanao region last year that claimed dozens of lives and displaced about 600,000 people.
Last year's fighting was triggered by a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed a draft peace agreement being offered by Arroyo to end four decades of insurgency in the homeland of the mainly Roman Catholic nation's large Muslim minority.
The accord would have granted the Muslims control over large areas of the south, a region where the Muslims are now outnumbered by Christian settlers.
Colonel Marlou Salazar, commander of an army brigade involved in the fighting, told reporters the rebels continued lobbing mortar shells onto army positions on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Meanwhile the army pursued the rebels who split into smaller groups and fled towards a marshy area, Ponce said.
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