|Both sides stress that they remain committed to peace despite recent ‘isolated incidents’ of violence [Reuters]|
Fighting between government forces and Muslim fighters in the southern Philippines has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
Officials said on Wednesday that more than 16,000 villagers had been displaced in three towns in Zamboanga Sibugay province on Mindanao island.
The towns include coastal Payao, where air force bomber planes, army troops and naval gunboats have been battling suspected Muslim rebels and outlaws accused of kidnappings for ransom and other crimes.
The Philippine military launched air strikes on Monday against dozens of suspected fighters, accusing them of kidnappings in which 19 soldiers and nine Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters have been killed so far.
The country’s largest armed Muslim group confirmed their forces had also been attacked. Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice-chair for political affairs, expressed regret that lives had been lost and passed on sympathies to the families of those killed.
Jaafar denied allegations that the group had any ties to “lawless elements”. He has accused the military of stoking with the shelling of a MILF training centre near Payao last week.
He said the group had ordered “our fighters on the ground to stand down and respect the peace process”.
Peace process to continue
Benigno Aquino III, the Philippine president, has insisted the MILF was not a target, He said his administration would continue talks with the MILF but seek the arrest of “lawless elements”.
He said on Monday that the peace process with the MILF would continue. “We are going through the process. We are reaching out to the leadership of the MILF,” he said in a radio interview.
Aquino’s spokesman, Ricky Carandang, said that the problem of wanted suspects fleeing into MILF sanctuaries “complicates the issue” of peace negotiations.
Efforts by Philippine authorities to arrest several current and former commanders of the 11,000-strong MILF sparked deadly clashes with troops last week, providing new complication to already-shaky peace negotiations and testing the truce, in place since 2008.
Both sides stress that they remain committed to peace in Mindanao despite recent “isolated incidents” of violence. They are set to resume talks in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, next month as scheduled.
The Moro group has been waging a bloody fight for self-rule in southern Mindanao region, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.