ALEOSON, Philippines -- A renegade force of Muslim rebels began slipping into the villages near Aleoson in late June. By the time they were pushed out last week in three days of bloody fighting, the rebels had razed at least 50 houses, pilfered livestock and rubbed emotions raw between Christians and Muslims, according to residents and the Philippines military.
The fighting was the worst since 2003 involving the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is battling for an independent homeland in the southern island group known as Mindanao.
Two Filipino soldiers, three civilians and an unknown number of rebels were killed.
While it's been localized, the fighting also poses a potential complication for U.S. strategy here.
As a potential peace agreement to end the long-running conflict draws closer, the Muslim and Christian communities are jockeying for position -- and land.
"If this will not be resolved, there will be more fighting," said Rio Cabugwasom, Aleoson's Muslim vice mayor.
The two communities normally co-exist, but mutual suspicions have deepened, he said in an interview on the open-air top floor of Aleoson's city hall, which offered views in every direction of lush jungle and rice fields.
Army Col. Alejandro Estomo, commander of the brigade involved in the action here, also said he expected more fighting. He cited reports that rebels under renegade commander Ombra Cato are planning more attacks on civilian targets here in North Cotabato province.
"I don't care if they're Filipinos -- what they're doing is uncivilized," Col. Estomo said with disgust. He said his brigade has been reinforced, doubling in size to six batallions.
In a little-known front in the "war on terror," the United States has sent Special Operations troops and millions of dollars in aid to help the Philippines government extend its writ and evict two terrorist groups, the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyaah, with links to al Qaida. U.S. forces are barred from direct combat.
The Bush administration also has pledged an unspecified sum to help reintegrate MILF fighters into civilian life if there is a peace deal.
Paradoxically, it is the prospect of a peace agreement that has sparked the fighting.
The Philippines' supreme court earlier this month issued an injunction blocking the draft agreement, after legal protests by politicians representing the country's majority Catholics.
Homemade signs protesting the agreement -- which would expand an existing Muslim autonomous region -- have gone up in Midsayap, a predominantly Catholic city of 120,000 near where the fighting took place.
Emmylou Talino Mendoza, a local congresswoman, said residents were taken by surprise by the deal's terms.
"There was no consultation. No transparency," she said.
Muslims, who made up 90 percent of Mindanao's population in 1900 but account for just 18 percent now because of Christian immigration, have traditionally been marginalized by the central government. They say that the southern Philippines is their ancestral homeland.
The thrust into a dozen or so villages by MILF commander Ombra Cato -- whose ties to the group's central leadership are unclear -- was an apparent land grab in advance of the peace agreement. The agreement mandates county-by-county plebiscites to determine who will join the expanded Muslim autonomous region.
But the fighting coincided with harvest time in this agriculture-dependent province.
Of the estimated 120,000 people displaced by the fighting, about one-third have returned to the homes, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
Mylah Jane Peligreno said her home, which she fled three weeks ago, was burned to the ground. Peligreno, 23, and her 5-year-old son were encamped at a local elementary school, where laundry hung from the branches of trees whose trunks were painted the same pink, yellow, green and blue pastels as the school walls.
"If it's peaceful, we will go back. Now, it's not yet over," she said.
Another refugee, Annabelle Ondoy, predicted "We will come back together, Muslims and Christians."