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Philippines Begins Offensive Against Islamic Insurgents


The Philippine military has launched a large offensive against Islamic insurgents on the country's southern Jolo Island, following the deaths of more than 20 troops. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says troops are targeting Muslim insurgents from the Abu Sayyaf and are not directing attacks against either the Moro National Liberation Front or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace accord with the government in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is engaged in peace talks with Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf is blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the country, including bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. The group is linked to the Southeast Asia terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah and with the al-Qaida network.

Mrs. Arroyo has taken the unprecedented step of temporarily ordering the transfer of the army headquarters from Manila to the southern city of Zamboanga to direct the offensive.

Chief negotiator and spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Mohaqher Iqbal, says his group will fight only if attacked.

"We have a substantial number of forces in Sulu and that is why the other day we called upon the government cease-fire committee to make a ground arrangement wherein our forces in Sulu would be positioning in a certain area where they would not be affected by the offensive but up to this moment there is no arrangement on the ground," said Iqbal.

More than 20 soldiers were killed in fighting last week - the largest troop loss in a single day in recent years. That battle followed the beheadings last month of 10 marines on nearby Basilan island.

Officials say last week's clashes involved a breakaway faction of Moro National Liberation Front fighters.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Iqbal says Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front should resume talking.

"We have urged the government and the Moro National Liberation Front to return to a dialogue," said Iqbal. "They should discuss the issue in Sulu right now so that the fighting would stop immediately. We also urge the government to call off its offensive against the Moro National Liberation Front in Sulu."

Thousands have been displaced by the fighting. Canada and Japan have threatened to withdraw aid workers from the area if the fighting escalates.

About 100 United States troops are on Jolo to help train the Philippine military, but they are forbidden under Philippine law to engage in combat.

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