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Muslim Separtists Take Hostages in Standoff Against Philippine Government

Muslim separatist rebels in the southern Philippines have taken dozens of hostages, as government troops continue their offensive for the third straight day. The government has been working for years to make peace with the rebels, who recently have been linked to criminal gangs. Military officials say Muslim separatist rebels took the hostages in two separate incidents Thursday morning in the southern Philippines. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels raided a village in North Cotabato province - some nine hundred kilometers from the capital, Manila.

A military spokesman, Major Julieto Ando, says the rebels were searching for food and used two families as "human shields" as they fled from advancing government troops. The hostages were later released.

In neighboring Sultan Kudarat province, at least 30 MILF rebels were passing through a village when they encountered a military unit. A firefight broke out and the guerillas took more than two dozen villagers with them. Some have been released after negotiations with the military. But more than a dozen, mostly women and children, were still unaccounted for late Thursday. The military says several MILF fighters were killed in the clash.

Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, told DXMS radio in Cotabato that the hostage-taking is not sanctioned by the MILF leadership.

This is the third day of fighting since the military accused the MILF of hiding kidnappers - a charge the group denies. Military commanders say at least 122 rebels and three soldiers have been killed since the fighting erupted Tuesday.

The clash threatens nearly two years of peace negotiations between the two sides to end more than 30 years of conflict. The MILF is fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern islands of the predominantly Christian Philippines.

But rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the MILF is willing to continue peace talks with the government despite the current fighting.