MANILA: Nearly 50 soldiers and Muslim militants were killed in the south-western Philippines, the army said yesterday, as fighting escalated after an ambush by rebels demanding the transfer of a detained separatist leader.
The military sent fresh troops to Jolo island to reinforce about 3,000 soldiers battling hundreds of rebels from Abu Sayyaf, a small group linked to al-Qaeda, and renegade members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The government signed a peace deal with the MNLF in 1996 and is due to restart talks in March with the 11,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke from the MNLF in 1978.
I have ordered air strikes to punish these renegades, said Lt-Gen Alberto Braganza, the military commander for the southern Philippines.
We are pursuing less than 500 armed men that are holding out in the mountains.
The military said 17 soldiers and about 30 rebels had been killed.
But local officials said as many as 40 soldiers may have died since Monday.
The violence erupted when hundreds of rebels ambushed a convoy of soldiers in Patikul town on Monday.
They also staged attacks in three other areas of Jolo in Sulu province.
We have information that the supporters of former chairman Nur Misuari wanted the transfer of his detention to Sulu, Braganza said in a radio interview yesterday.
They are trying to pressure the government to give in to their demands.
Misuari, a political science professor at a state university, organised the MNLF in 1968 to wage war for a Muslim state in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.
Two months after the 1996 peace deal, Misuari was elected regional governor of an autonomous area for Muslim communities that was carved from existing provinces in the south.
Before his term ended in 2001, he took up arms again when it became clear the government would not support his re-election.
Misuari tried to escape to Sabah but was arrested and deported to the Philippines in January 2002. He is detained at a police camp south of Manila as he stands trial on rebellion charges.
Braganza said Misuari's MNLF followers had merged with about 400 members of Abu Sayyaf.
Abu Solaiman, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf, meanwhile called on the MILF to abandon its peace talks with the government and renew its fight for a Muslim state. Reuters
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