More than 16,000 people have fled from four southern Philippine towns where government troops have been battling Muslim guerrillas and outlaws in clashes that are endangering already-shaky peace talks and a years-long truce.
Attempts by Philippine authorities to arrest several current and former commanders of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front and allied gunmen accused of kidnappings for ransom and other crimes sparked separate deadly clashes last week in Zamboanga Sibugay province and on Basilan island.
The Moro group has been waging a bloody fight for self-rule in southern Mindanao region, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. A cease-fire has held since 2008.
President Benigno Aquino III said Monday his administration would continue talks with the insurgents but seek the arrest of criminals, including those from the rebel group.
The 120,000-strong military suffered one of its biggest losses in years in Basilan last week when troops tried to capture a fugitive rebel commander and other outlaws, igniting daylong fighting that killed 19 soldiers.
Fearing more clashes, nearly 6,000 villagers have fled from Al-Barka and outlying towns in Basilan, a predominantly Muslim province about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, Office of Civil Defense Administrator Benito Ramos said.
In Zamboanga Sibugay, also in the south, about 10,800 villagers have fled to safety from three towns, including in coastal Payao, where air force OV-10 bomber planes, naval gunboats and about 700 army troops and police have been trying to flush out more than 120 former Muslim rebels and bandits encamped in a hilly forest, officials said.
Zamboanga Sibugay police chief Ruben Cariaga said military aircraft staged bombing runs for a second day Tuesday in Payao. Troops assaulted the bandits after OV-10 planes dropped bombs on their lair Monday but were met by heavy machine-gun fire that killed two soldiers, he said.
Cariaga said Tuesday that the gunmen, who include members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, had been surrounded.
The gunmen, accused of kidnappings for ransom, extortion and other crimes, may be holding at least one kidnap victim, officials said.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Von Al Haq has urged the military to stop the Payao offensive, saying Muslim rebels from his group were among those surrounded by troops but the criminals being sought by authorities were not their members and not in the area under fire.
The Payao offensive has displaced many of his group's civilian followers and was endangering the cease-fire, Al Haq said. He expressed optimism the peace talks would survive the latest test.
"We've consistently said that the most civilized way to end the rebellion is through negotiations and not by the law of the gun," Al Haq told The Associated Press by telephone.
Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe, whose country has been backing the peace talks for years, said he hoped the cease-fire would be respected and that both sides would continue efforts to foster peace talks.
"The recent firefights are a source of serious concern for me because it is jeopardizing the peace process," Urabe said.