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Philippine Military Continues Chase of Rebel Groups, Criminal Gang

The Philippine military is continuing to chase rebel groups and a criminal gang in the southern islands and says it has discovered a camp used for training and planning attacks. They estimate more than 20 rebels have died in skirmishes over the past few days.

The Philippine military says that on Monday it continued assaults on area occupied by the Muslim separatists and a kidnapping gang. Heavy fighting took place in areas occupied by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern province of Sultan Kudarat. Troops estimate that more than 20 MILF rebels have died in fighting since Saturday.

Ros Manlangit, a military spokesman, said the operation is not targeting the MILF, and instead is focusing on a criminal organization known as the Pentagon gang. The gang is infamous for kidnappings and other crimes. "Our forces are in operation against this kidnapper and some groups, Pentagon. We are not going against the MILF directly, because we have an agreement with them," he said. "We are going against kidnapper groups."

Military air and ground assaults began late last week. Philippine troops say they occupied mountainous areas Saturday after driving away Pentagon gang members and some MILF rebels. The fighting has forced more than 200 families from their homes.

Philippine forces also claim to have uncovered a training camp for the rebels, as well as instructions for making explosives.

An MILF spokesman, however, said the military reports are incorrect. Eid Kabalu said three MILF fighters were wounded in clashes with the military, but there were no deaths. He also denied the existence of a training camp. "They are trying to make it appear that this is a camp," he said. "No, this is a community. It's a community where civilians are living but some of the residents there are MILF supporters and sympathizers. It so happened that the skirmishes took place in the area."

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been fighting for decades for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Clashes flair up sporadically between the Philippine military and the rebels despite a truce in 1997, and a ceasefire in 2001. Government and rebel negotiators are hoping to resume peace talks later this year.