ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES — Government forces Wednesday took back control of more than a dozen villages abandoned by retreating Muslim rebels in the troubled southern island of Mindanao, military officials said.
Philippine troops, backed by attack planes and artillery, expelled hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters who seized 15 villages across North Cotabato province last week, they said.
"We have totally reclaimed the villages occupied by rebels. But troops are still clearing the areas of land mines left behind by the MILF forces," said Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, a spokesman for the army's 6th Infantry Division.
Rebels occupied the villages in the mainly Christian province, saying they are part of a Muslim homeland that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government last month agreed to establish in negotiations brokered by Malaysia. The Supreme Court stopped the formal signing of the accord after politicians and lawmakers opposed to the deal filed a petition.
The government issued an ultimatum last week for the guerrillas to withdraw, but the rebels held their ground and accused armed militias of sparking the clashes in the towns of Aleosan, Pikit and Midsayap.
The police and the military accused the rebels of pillaging civilian areas and attacking government forces after North Cotabato opposed its inclusion in the deal with the rebels, which would cede part of the province to the autonomous Muslim homeland.
A weeklong battle between rebel and government forces killed more than two dozen soldiers and guerrillas and forced about 160,000 civilians to flee their homes. The United Nations said Wednesday that it was alarmed by the humanitarian crisis in Mindanao caused by the fighting and appealed for restraint and protection of civilians.
Ando, the military spokesman, said rebel forces had retreated to the hinterlands. Authorities said they would file charges against rebel commander Ameril Umbra Kato.
There have been no reports of fresh clashes, Ando said, adding that many civilians displaced by the fighting wanted to return home.
"They want to attend to their farms and return to their normal life, but land mines and unexploded munitions are posing a danger to civilians," Ando said. "Troops are carefully clearing the areas, slowly and inch by inch, to really ensure that no explosives are left behind."
The rebel group said it had ordered its forces to withdraw to avoid clashes with government troops.
"We have complied with the agreement between the cease-fire committees to reposition our forces to avoid further clashes," said Eid Kabalu, a senior rebel leader.
"Had militias not attacked the MILF, there would have been no hostilities in North Cotabato."
Kabalu said the group had ordered the rebels to defend themselves against military attacks.
Mohagher Iqbal, the rebels' chief peace negotiator, said Tuesday that the hostilities could spread to other parts of Mindanao and were threatening the peace talks.