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First air strikes on Philippine rebels since 2008

The Philippines on Monday launched its first air strikes in three years against Muslim rebels in the restless south, after a series of attacks that left 35 people dead, the military said.

Two OV-10 attack planes bombed a remote village on the edge of Payao town on Mindanao island, where Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels have been entrenched since last week, army spokesman Major Harold Cabunoc said.

The 12,000-strong MILF has waged a rebellion since the 1970s in Mindanao, the country's southern third, which the minority Muslims consider their ancestral homeland.

The government has been involved in peace talks with the rebel leadership since 2003 and the two sides are currently observing a ceasefire. The group targeted in Monday's bombing was a breakaway faction.

"The bombing attacks began at 11:30 am today," Cabunoc said.

"About 100 heavily armed bandits are holed up in their bunkers and running trenches."

After the air raids, ground troops fired artillery rounds allowing a combined contingent of about 200 police and army commandos to slowly enter the area.

The resulting gunbattle left at least six gunmen and two soldiers dead Monday, further raising the toll from the week-long hostilities, regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said.

There were no immediate reports of any civilian casualties. About 3,000 residents fled the area last week, according to officials.

"The ground fire from the enemy was intense," Cabangbang said, adding that clashes continued into dusk.

He said the "lawless elements" targeted by the air strikes were rogue rebels involved in kidnapping and other criminal activities.

The air raids were the first against any MILF faction since 2008, when the military also used aircraft to bombard followers of two rebel commanders who had launched deadly raids across Mindanao that left about 400 dead, he said.

"This is the first time since 2008, but I would like to stress the (rebels) we are after are operating outside the control of the MILF leadership," Cabangbang told AFP.

The same group of rebels was blamed for ambushes that killed four soldiers and four policemen last Thursday.

Those attacks came just two days after 19 special forces commandos were gunned down by MILF fighters after they strayed into rebel territory on Basilan island, also in Mindanao.

Five rubber plantation workers and three soldiers meanwhile were killed in separate attacks on Sunday, while 200 rebels also occupied two elementary schools in remote farming villages, stealing cattle and harassing residents.

Speaking to reporters Monday, President Benigno Aquino rejected calls for an "all-out war" against the MILF, and said intensified military and police operations were tactically focused to capture only those behind atrocities.

He said the MILF leadership were informed that the targets of Monday's assault were not covered by the ceasefire, and warned other guerrilla units not to join in the battle.

"Those who will get in the way of our forces in the pursuit of their legitimate operations cannot be differentiated from those whom we are after," he said.

Aquino said the bombardment in Payao was in response to appeals by villagers to capture the gunmen.

"Our forces have effectively isolated them," he said.

Aquino called on the MILF leadership to demonstrate good will and help authorities round up the "lawless elements" so peace talks could move forward.

While the MILF has dropped its independence bid in favour of autonomy, the talks are currently deadlocked and the ceasefire is often marred by violence.

More than 30 years of fighting have claimed about 150,000 lives and stunted efforts to develop the mineral-rich southern region.


By Jason Gutierrez | AFP News


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