At least 13 people have been killed as fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels intensifies in the North Cotabato province of southern Philippines. The latest offensive comes after the military tried to drive out the rebels who have occupied several villages in the region since last month.
Thousands of people have been caught in the crossfire in the southern Philippines
Backed by artillery and rocket-firing helicopters, the Philippine army pounded the rebel positions for a second day in North Cotabato province on Monday.
Regional tensions in the southern Philippines have been growing following negotiations between the government and the Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF over a controversial homeland deal. The MILF has been fighting for more autonomy for the Muslim provinces on the island of Mindanao for decades.
Its deal with the government focuses on the expansion of the Muslim autonomous region in the south and on the future of the government's power in the region. But local Christian leaders are against the deal, fearing it may give more power to the rebels. Acting on their petition last week, the Supreme Court halted the accord.
After the decision, hundreds of rebels seized control of several mainly Christian villages and towns in the province.
The Philippine military says their offensive comes after the rebels refused to withdraw from the villages. Meanwhile a rebel spokesperson has denied these claims, saying they were prepared to go but came under fire from armed Christian villagers. Speaking with a news agency rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said they would not pull back until the government guarantee their safety.
The clashes have already forced about 130,000 villagers to flee their homes since last week, says Philippine Interior Minister Ronaldo Puno: “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to escort very many families back. In fact we have had to absorb a tenfold increase in evacuees.” The refugees have taken shelter in government evacuation centres.
Clashes mar local polls
The violence coincided with local elections in the nearby Muslim Autonomous Region of Mindanao. About 1.5 million Filipino Muslims voted under heavy security for a new governor, vice governor and other posts in the regional assembly.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM is a five province region created in 1996 after a peace accord between the government and the rebels. Though North Cotabato is not part of it, the ongoing tensions there have had an influence on the local polls.
Clashes were reported in Tipo-Tipo town in Basilan province. At least one marine, one rebel and two civilians were killed in the fighting, causing disruption in polls there. “It had an indirect influence because so many roads have been closed. The shootings happened in Basilan. We had to limit our movements in some areas," says Ichal Supriadi, one of the observers from a delegation of the Asian Network for Free Elections.
However local officials say the polls in the rest of the region have taken place under peaceful conditions.