Philippine troops have called off an offensive that killed dozens of breakaway Muslim rebels and dislodged 100 others from two southern strongholds ahead of the resumption this week of peace talks between the government and a main insurgent group, military officials said.
Village officials and witnesses have reported between 36 to 80 armed fighters of the rebel faction Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Movement were killed in clashes over the weekend in villages of a vast marshland bordering the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, according to army officials.
An army officer and five soldiers were killed in the firefights, which shattered months of relative calm in the south's volatile central heartland.
The breakaway rebels abandoned the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is in talks with the government for an autonomy deal, two years ago. They vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic country.
Despite the rebel infighting, the peace talks have progressed in recent years and were to resume yesterday in Malaysia to try to iron out differences over a proposed revenue-sharing accord for a larger and more powerful Muslim autonomous region.
Army commanders said they were authorised to carry out assaults against the breakaway rebels for only a few days before the resumption of the talks in Malaysia and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"We don't want the peace process derailed," Major General Romeo Gapuz said.
Government troops and police, backed by artillery fire, attempted to capture several leaders of the breakaway rebels in two hilly strongholds in Maguindanao on Saturday, but were fired upon, sparking sporadic and fierce clashes all day, army spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso said.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters encamped near the scene of the clashes moved safely away to avoid being drawn into the fighting, rebel spokesman Von al Haq said, adding the violence would not likely hamper the peace talks in Malaysia.