Three civilians and at least 19 soldiers have been killed in violent skirmishes between government troops and armed Muslim groups this week, according to military sources.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Mindanao island staged an ambush which officials say claimed the lives of two soldiers and a civilian on Sunday.

Colonel Horacio  Lactao (L), and US army
Colonel Lengenfelder, commander of the
Joint Special Operations Task Force plan
to remove all separatist groups

The MILF stormed the town of Siocon in Zamboanga del Norte province and attacked the military headquarters and the municipal police station, military southern command spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Renoir Pascua said.
 
A firefight followed during which five members of an army unit responding to the emergency were wounded, while a sixth was killed. The fighters then seized several hostages, including the wife and child of the town mayor.

"As of the latest report we have now, we have a soldier killed and eight wounded," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero said over DZBB radio in Manila.

"Of the hostages, two were recovered. The civilians hostages include the mayor's child and wife."
  
"We have dispatched additional troops to the area to go after the rebels and rescue the 13 hostages," he said.
  
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu confirmed the attack, saying 11 fighters were wounded and two were killed.

Lucero accused the fighters of demanding extortion money from Siocon residents, many of whom make a living by panning for gold nuggets in the mineral-rich area, but this has not been independently confirmed.

The majority of clashes with government forces in recent weeks have been with Abu Sayyaf, which Manila and Washington term as a terrorist organization.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said that the Abu Sayyaf fighters were in the "final throes of defeat" on Friday, referring to a sustained military campaign to root them out.

Manila's policy to separatist demands has
never been under any doubt
 

Government troops stormed the Sayyaf stronghold on Pilas island last Thursday after it was bombed sustainedly.

The storming of the island resulted in the deaths of four fighters and two soldiers, according to the military.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero said the assault followed reports that Khaddafy Janjalani, the leader of Abu Sayyaf, had fled to Pilas from the nearby island of Jolo.

The fighters had attempted to escape from Jolo in the face of a joint US-Philippine military operation, which was due to begin on the island in the coming months, local army chief Colonel Bonifacio Ramos confirmed.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have an estimated 300-400 members, mainly based in Jolo and Basilan, and is well-known for its kidnapping of nationals and tourists for ransom.
 
In the Cotabato province, the MILF killed two soldiers and a civilian in Kabasalan village near Pikit, Major General Generoso Senga confirmed, adding that the soldiers were ambushed while on their way to a local market.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu admitted responsibility, saying the civilian death was "collateral damage" in their offensive against the military.

The village of Kabasalan is part of another area captured by the military in February.

Earlier in the week, there were further clashes between the MILF and government forces in the same region.

MILF has thousands of supporters and has waged a 25-year struggle against the Philippine Government with the aim of establishing an independent state in the southern third of the country.

The two sides have failed to come to a workable solution, despite a ceasefire signed in 2001 and a series of negotiations.