At least 144 people have been killed in recent violence after some radical separatists attacked civilians in the Philippines' southern region of Mindanao, disaster-relief and military officials said on Saturday.
The death toll from attacks by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao has risen to 144 as of Saturday morning, said the Philippine National Disaster Coordinating Council.
In its latest report, the agency said 53 persons were wounded in the attacks and one remained missing.
According to the disaster-relief agency, the attacks also displaced 40,612 families or 201,975 persons in 134 Mindanao villages.
Meanwhile, the military reported that at least 100 MILF members were killed, based on intercepted radio conversation between separatist rebels, as the biggest air strike and ground offensive continued for three straight days to catch two MILF commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato and Abdullah Makapaar, among others.
Lieutenant Colonel Julieto Ando, a military spokesman, told local news network Inquirer.net that 24 government troops were injured since skirmishes broke out Wednesday.
Violence has escalated in the southern Philippines over the past weeks after a territorial pact, scheduled for Aug. 5 to have been inked between the government and the MILF, was suspended by the Supreme Court on the eve of signing.
The agreement on the domain of a projected Muslim-dominated state was regarded as the last remaining hurdle to a final political settlement that is expected to end the insurgency in the southern Philippines. But critics said the pact is unconstitutional and has held a series of protests against it.
Earlier this week, the Philippine government decided to "review " the pact and announced that it would not resume peace talks with the separatists until the radicals involved in the attacks on civilians were surrendered.
In pursuit of the attackers, the government on Friday rejected calls for an "all-out" war with the MILF, saying its ongoing military operations in the South are only meant to "neutralize" radicals involved in recent attacks against civilians.
"The President (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) wishes to allay fears that an all-out war will be launched by the government in light of increasing calls to do so," said Eduardo Ermita, Executive Secretary and presidential spokesman of the country.
Calls for an all-out war against the MILF have been increasing following attacks by radical members of the MILF against civilians in the southern provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sarangani in the past two weeks.
Among those who advocated total war was former President Joseph Estrada, who chided the Arroyo government of giving back territory that government forces seized from the separatist rebels in 2000 when he was in power.
On the other hand, religious leaders and human rights groups have warned that an all-out war could only aggravate the conflict that has divided Filipinos in the South for decades.
Ermita also said the government is not imposing on the MILF leadership to surrender their two commanders as a condition for peace negotiations to continue.
He said the government just has to "live up to that realization that they (MILF leaders) admit that they have elements that do not follow orders."
MILF leaders have said the attacks will be investigated jointly by the government and MILF cease-fire committees and that punishments await their men found responsible for the " unauthorized attacks."
Earlier on Friday, the Philippine National Police (PNP) filed charges of murder, kidnapping, and arson against Bravo, Kato and 89 others who were linked to attacks and burning of properties in parts of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sarangani provinces.
Ermita further said that government forces will continue to go after these "rogue" MILF members but are under strict orders to avoid "collateral damage," a term used for civilians getting caught in the crossfire.
"While the government's military and police forces are complying with the President's directive to neutralize the two erring commanders and other recalcitrant leaders and members of the MILF at all cost to the extent possible, collateral damage must be avoided," Ermita said.
The 12,000-strong MILF have been fighting for self-rule since 1978, and signed a cease-fire with the government in 2003. The peace talks between the government and the rebel group have been on and off over the past years.
(Xinhua News Agency August 23, 2008)