Thousands flee Philippine army offensive in south

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 25, 2011 3:40 PM
Thousands flee Philippine army offensive in south

MANILA (Reuters) - Thousands of Filipinos fled their homes as the army launched an offensive against criminal gangs in the south, authorities said Tuesday, a day after President Benigno Aquino vowed justice for soldiers killed in earlier clashes.

Security forces launched air strikes for the second day on known Muslim rebel positions in Zamboanga Sibugay province on the southern island of Mindanao as troops hunted down about 100 gunmen blamed for kidnappings in the south.

"Our soldiers are encountering heavy resistance on the ground," Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, army spokesman, told reporters, adding eight people had died, including two soldiers, Monday.

Four army commandos and an estimated 40 gunmen were wounded, Burgos added.

Heavy fighting had forced more than 10,000 people to flee their homes from three farming towns, Adriano Fuego, head of the regional civil defense office, said, appealing for food, water and other supplies.

"We have monitored streams of people moving to safer areas, away from the conflict zones," Fuego said, adding many of the displaced families were staying in schools and government buildings.

In 2008, nearly 750,000 people were displaced for nearly a year when the army launched offensives against rogue members of the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group who burned farms and communities after the Supreme Court threw out a proposed deal on an ancestral homeland for Muslims.

Monday, Aquino ordered attacks on criminal gangs blamed for violence in the south that led to the death of about 30 soldiers in a week, but he resisted popular calls to suspend peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The government and the MILF have been negotiating since 1997 to end more than four decades of conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich Muslim areas in the south.

Talks, brokered by Malaysia, were stalled in August when rebels rejected Manila's autonomy offer and insisted on setting up a Muslim sub-state in the mainly Roman Catholic country.

(Reporting By Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco)