'Scores killed' in Philippines fighting

The Philippine military has killed scores of Muslim rebels this week in a sweep of the southern island of Mindanao, a spokesman said.

"The latest count we have is 122 enemy killed," army division commander Major Generoso Senga told Reuters news agency by telephone, adding that the figures were being verified.

The army is pursuing rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which it accuses of harbouring a notorious kidnap gang.

Fighting continued on Thursday when a group of fighters briefly seized a village before being driven back by troops.

The army said that about 50 militants, whom it identified as MILF, attacked the village of Bual near the town of Tulunan.

They withdrew when troops appeared but escaped with eight male villagers as hostages.

Four rebels and a ninth hostage were killed in the fighting, the army added.

Rebel denial

The MILF has played down army reports of heavy casualties since the fighting erupted on Tuesday.

The rebels have vowed to continue fighting until government troops withdraw to their original positions and refused to attend talks scheduled for Wednesday to end the fighting.

"We cannot hold talks when the troops on the ground are fighting," MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told the Associated Press.

Army spokesman Major Senga said three soldiers had been killed to date and 15 wounded.

Kidnappers targeted

The fighting started on Tuesday, when more than 2,000 soldiers advanced towards the MILF stronghold near Pikit, with tanks, artillery and planes.

The military says the attack was planned to flush out a group of kidnappers known as the Pentagon gang, which is on the list of US terrorist organisations.

The army has accused the MILF of sheltering Pentagon members, an accusation the rebels deny.

MILF guerrillas are campaigning for independence for the Muslim minority in the south of the Philippines - a predominantly Christian country.

Despite a cease-fire agreement signed in 2001, there continues to be sporadic outbreaks of violence.

So far up to 31,000 civilians have sought shelter from the fighting in schools and other government buildings.

14/02/2003

Bron : BBC World News

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