'Getting desperate'

Ponce said the soldiers were told by residents about the presence of a large number of members of breakaway factions of the MILF, the Philippines's largest Muslim rebel group, being outside their village.

Ponce accused the fighters of raiding villages for food, stealing grain and livestock.

"Our troops went there to protect the community," he said.

The army launched an offensive against guerrillas from the breakaway separatist group last August when they went on the rampage after peace negotiations between the government and the MILF collapsed.

Fighting across oil and gas-rich marshlands and nearby hills on the southern island of Mindanao has escalated in the past six weeks and displaced more than 50,000 families, pushing back prospects for the resumption of peace talks.

Nearly 600 people have been killed since August 2008, many of them civilians caught up in the fighting.

About 2,000 houses in Maguindanao province have been set on fire.