- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

MANILA (AP) | Muslim guerrillas began withdrawing from several occupied southern Philippine villages Tuesday after fierce fighting with government troops that has displaced nearly 160,000 civilians during harvest time, officials said.

Nearly 3,000 troops and police, backed by bomber aircraft, regained control of two occupied villages in North Cotabato province Monday. Army and police Tuesday found abandoned at least six of the remaining 13 predominantly Christian villages that had been occupied by hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation rebels, police Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio said.

The exchanges of artillery and machine gun fire that began with Sunday’s government assault have eased, but the crackle of gunfire could still be heard in some areas, Chief Serapio said.

Troops and police, along with some residents, returned to some of the abandoned villages to check for booby traps and land mines. They found burned-out homes and looted farms, raising questions on how quickly the burgeoning number of evacuees could return to normal lives.

“There are already withdrawals in some of the areas of concern,” Chief Serapio said by telephone from an abandoned village, called Takipan, in North Cotabato’s Pikit farming town.

The Philippine government gave the rebels an ultimatum to withdraw by Friday and started attacking them when they failed to do so. Government figures showed 83 homes had been destroyed.

At least one soldier was killed and 15 others were wounded. An army spokesman, Maj. Armand Rico, said up to 31 rebels may have been killed in the clashes; but the rebels disputed the figure, saying only four men died.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the guerrillas were repositioning in line with the government’s call for them to withdraw. But he said the pace of the withdrawal can vary and he called on army troops to stop firing.

The latest flare-up in fighting in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s south - the traditional Muslim homeland - comes at a crucial time in ongoing peace talks between the government and the rebels, who have been fighting for self-rule for decades.

The two sides, which signed a 2003 cease-fire, had reached agreement covering the territorial makeup of a future expanded Muslim region, but the signing of the accord was halted last week by the Supreme Court.

The court was acting on a petition filed by southern Christian politicians who are wary of losing land and power to the Muslims.

The agricultural province of more than a million people is still recovering from a typhoon, which ravaged farmlands last June.

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