MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops on Monday retook several southern towns where Muslim rebels killed at least 26 people earlier in the day in what the guerrillas said was an outburst of frustration with an uncertain peace process.
The retreating Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels took dozens of civilians hostage in Kolambugan town, said Brig. Gen. Antonio Supnet, head of an army brigade that drove away the rebels.
Officials said 23 civilians were killed in Kauswagan and in neighboring Kolambugan. At least three soldiers were killed, army commanders said.
Supnet said more than 20 houses were burned in Kauswagan alone and hundreds of displaced villagers were streaming into evacuation centers in nearby Iligan city.
Military chief Gen. Alexander Yano said government troops launched an offensive in response to Monday morning's attack by about 300 guerrillas on the coastal towns in Lanao del Norte province.
TV footage showed mayhem in one smoldering village as residents ran for cover, jumping over the fences of their roadside houses. Burned-out vehicles littered the street. A photographer said up to 100 people escaped in dozens of boats to Iligan because the main highway was blocked.
The escalation of fighting on Mindanao island came amid uncertainty over a fragile peace process after the Supreme Court blocked a preliminary agreement with Muslim rebels calling for an expanded autonomous region.
A military offensive earlier this month that dislodged the rebels from several villages displaced about 80,000 residents in a nearby province.
At least 7,000 villagers fled in the latest fighting, police said.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu confirmed the attack, but said it was carried out by a key commander, Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Bravo, without the knowledge of the group's leadership.
Kabalu said the rebels were frustrated over the slow progress in talks but added their actions were "illegal and they were ordered by (rebel) leaders to vacate the areas they attacked."
Officials in predominantly Christian cities in the southern Philippines — the traditional homeland of minority Muslims — have strongly opposed the agreement on an expanded Muslim autonomous region, part of efforts by the government and the rebels to end a decades-old insurgency for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The agreement, which was supposed to be signed this month but was blocked by the Supreme Court, calls for more than 700 new villages to be added to an existing Muslim autonomous region, subject to the approval of residents in a plebiscite next year.
The Supreme Court acted on a petition filed by Christian politicians wary of losing land and power to Muslims.