JOLO, (Philippines): Troops captured the main stronghold of hundreds of Muslim gunmen yesterday and pursued them from a town where they attacked an army detachment, triggering clashes that have killed more than 60 people, military officials said.
About 300 armed followers of jailed Muslim leader Nur Misuari fled towards the mountains, as villagers urged the military to finish them off to ensure the rebels no longer threaten Panamao town in this island, officials said.
At least 24 soldiers have been killed. More than 40 other soldiers were wounded in clashes that erupted Monday.
The military said troops have killed 37 Nur Misuari loyalists.
After air force fighter planes bombarded gunmen near an army company detachment, a nearby hospital and Panamao's town hall on Thursday, large numbers of troops moved in, firing artillery and automatic rifles and prompting the attackers to withdraw, officials said.
They fled to a hilltop stronghold called Bitanag, then retreated deeper into the mountainous heartland.
Lt-Gen Alberto Braganza, commander of the military's southern command, said troops would not ease their pursuit of the gunmen, who were led by locally prominent religious leader Habier Malik, until they surrender or are dead.
“Our troops are finally closing in on him,” Braganza said.
Nur Misuari's followers said they were responding to alleged intrusions into their territory on Feb 1, when the army was pursuing suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels in the area.
Governor Ben Loong said thousands of villagers had fled their homes in Panamao and the outlying towns and taken refuge at emergency shelters.
Troops have been put on alert and security tightened, particularly in the southern port city of Zamboanga.
The fighting underscores the fragility of peace in the volatile south – the home of minority Muslims and site of a decades-long separatist insurgency.
Nur Misuari formerly headed the Moro National Liberation Front, a large Muslim separatist group that accepted limited autonomy and signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.
But violence flared again and Nur Misuari was imprisoned near Manila on charges of rebellion. – AP
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