MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops, backed by helicopter gunships, regained control of two southern villages from Muslim rebels Monday and pressed ahead with a massive assault to clear 13 others, officials said.
At least one soldier and seven Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas have been killed since nearly 3,000 troops and police launched the attacks on Sunday. The assault, backed by artillery and rocket-firing helicopters, came after the guerrillas defied an ultimatum to withdraw from five towns in North Cotabato province, military vice chief of staff Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna said.
The fighting has forced about 130,000 villagers to flee their homes. It coincided with a crucial development in ongoing peace talks between the government and the rebels, who have been waging a bloody insurgency for self-rule in the southern Philippines.
The two sides 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, acting on a petition filed by Christian politicians in North Cotabato who are wary of losing land and power to the Muslims.
Separately Monday, another 300 guerrillas — also suspected of belonging to the Moro group — attacked Basilan province's Tipo Tipo township, some 300 kilometers southwest of North Cotabato, officials said.
The suspected rebels were protesting the election of a new governor and other officials of the five-province Muslim autonomous region that includes Basilan province, the provincial police chief Salik Macapantar said.
Macapantar said two policemen who helped repel the guerrillas were missing.
Marine Lt. Col. Leonard Vincent Teodoro said the rebels occupied Tipo Tipo's town hall, schools and several houses before government forces drove them out.
The government had given the group's estimated 800-1,000 guerrillas until Friday morning to vacate 15 villages in five North Cotabato townships that the rebels have occupied for more than a month.
During an emergency meeting to stave off a confrontation, the group's leaders agreed to order their men to pull back. But instead of withdrawing, the rebels stayed put and spread into other areas, prompting the government to launch an assault, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said.
Teodoro said the guerrillas led by a key regional commander, Ameril Umbra Kato, were no longer following the orders of their leaders. But rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied Teodoro's claim, saying Kato remains a loyal commander.