Philippine military, Muslim rebels clash; peace plan suffers

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — Fierce fighting between Muslim rebels and the Filipino military over the last three days has dealt a setback to a peace plan aimed at ending the world's longest-running insurgency and raised fears of violence spreading elsewhere in the southern Philippines.

The fighting, which has displaced at least 130,000 residents, began Sunday when Philippine armed forces attacked units of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which seized a half-dozen villages on southern Mindanao island.

In a separate incident Monday, unknown assailants attacked soldiers and policemen who were guarding a polling place on Basilan Island, killing one and wounding three, senior Filipino military officials said.

Tensions in the trouble-racked southern Philippines spiked last week when the country's supreme court halted the signing of an agreement that would have given an expanded autonomous homeland to Muslims in the south. The court was ruling on a petition from Christians who feared losing their lands.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while technically in a cease-fire with the government, has been fighting for years for an independent Muslim state.

In interviews Tuesday, military officers predicted that a peace deal would be reached eventually. But they said they feared more outbreaks of violence in the short term. "It looks that way," said Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, the commander of the Philippine military in western Mindanao.

Parts of the southern Philippines have been a haven for two Southeast Asian terrorist organizations with global links, the Abu Sayyaf Group and Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

U.S. and Filipino officials and private counter-terrorism analysts say the two groups have been diminished significantly in recent years but remain active.

Some 500 to 600 U.S. troops, mostly special operations forces, are in the southern Philippines. While barred from combat, they train and advise the Filipino military, provide intelligence to target suspected terrorists and join in goodwill operations, such as providing medical care and building schools.

"There seems to be some very high tensions between the Christians and Muslims" in the area where fighting is taking place, said Stephen Anderson, the head of the World Food Program in the Philippines.

"The situation unfolded very quickly," Anderson said. "Two weeks ago, we were optimistic we were going to see a peace agreement quite soon."

The World Food Program, a U.N. agency, said it was moving 440 tons of rice to feed civilians who were forced to flee their homes.

Anderson and the Philippine military said the fighting so far had been confined to North Cotabato province on Mindanao Island.

Local news reports Tuesday said the rebels appeared to be withdrawing from villages they'd seized.

Other than the attack on Basilan Island, elections Monday in the autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao went smoothly, officials said.

"The recent elections . . . can be considered a success," said Rear Adm. Emilio Marayag, the Filipino navy commander in the region. Marayag said his vessels helped escort ballot boxes from around the archipelago.

An American aircraft evacuated the Filipino soldier who was killed in Monday's attack and his wounded comrades, U.S. and Filipino officials said.