Weeks of clashes between rival Muslim rebel groups in the southern Philippines have left 13 people dead and forced thousands of others to flee their homes, the military said on Thursday.
More than 1,000 rebels armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars have been involved in the fighting, as the two sides seek control of valuable farmland on Mindanao island, local army commanders said.
“One group will attack the other, then break off. The other group will then stage an attack in retaliation. It is a series of skirmishes,” regional military spokesman Major Marlowe Patria said.
He said 13 fighters from both sides had been killed and nine others wounded since the clashes began on January 9.
Another 800 families had been evacuated to escape the fighting, which was occurring in rice fields and rural villages about 60 kilometres from Cotabato City, a main trading centre of the south, according to Patria.
The feud is between a commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the country’s original Muslim separatist group, and a commander from the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), he said.
MILF spokesman Mohager Iqbal said the two commanders were fighting over 1,000 hectares of riceland, while emphasising the dispute was a local one and not between the main groups.
“It is not the MNLF and MILF that are at war. It is just some members of the MILF and some members of the MNLF,” Iqbal said.
The local government as well as the leadership of the MNLF and MILF have been trying to broker a ceasefire this week, but fighting continued on Wednesday and there were fears the conflict could escalate.
“It really looks like they don’t respect the orders of their superiors,” local battalion commander Colonel Domingo Gobway said.
“We have monitored that there are many reinforcements from both sides who are coming in.”
Military intelligence officers in the area said the two rival commanders, who live near each other, originally had a combined total of 1,400 armed followers.
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