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Muslim Filipinos Vote as Violence Rages in Southern Philippines

Over a million and a half Muslim Filipinos have voted in a regional election held amid escalating violence between the government and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta reports.

Around 1.6 million Muslim Filipinos voted Monday for a governor, vice governor, and 24 members of a regional legislative assembly in the six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, known as the ARMM.

Local and international observers called the polls generally peaceful but marred by perennial problems such as tainted voter's lists.

Fighting between Muslim rebels and government troops in North Cotabato, which is not part of the ARMM, did not directly affect the elections.

Tensions remained high in the region as troops battled with hundreds of separatist Muslim fighters in North Cotabato forcing an estimated 130,000 people to flee their homes.

The fighting began Sunday after rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, defied a government ultimatum to withdraw from several Christian villages in North Cotabato on the southern island of Mindanao.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the chief peace negotiator for the MILF, told VOA the violence was escalating.

"Fighting is still on going and it is worsening day by day because more troops coming from the government are enforcing their positions in various towns in the province," said Iqbal. "Our forces are defending themselves from this operation by the Philippine Forces."

The flare up of violence in the southern Philippines follows a decision last week by the country's Supreme Court to suspend a deal for an expanded Muslim homeland the group had agreed on with the government.

MILF chief negotiator Iqbal warned the peace process was in danger of collapsing.

"We are negotiating with the Philippine government as the sole representative of the government of the Republic of the Philippines. And then as to the internal squabbles to the three branches of government, the position of the MILF is that that is internal to the Philippine government, and if the Supreme Court rules negative, then as far as we are concerned, the peace process is practically dead," added Iqbal.

The ARMM, the country's poorest region, was created in 1989, as part of a deal to end the conflict with another large Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front.

The MILF has been negotiating with Manila since 1997 to enlarge the Muslim homeland and grant it wider political, economic, and social powers.

But the Supreme court's decision last week to put on hold the expanded territorial deal, which, among other things, would allow the proposed Muslim homeland to retain 75 percent of all revenues from its natural resources, has created uncertainty.

The 12,000 strong MILF has been fighting with the government since the late 1960's in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 120,000 people.

The Philippines is predominately Roman Catholic, but around 5 percent of the population is Muslim and the majority of them live in the south.