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20 Dead in Southern Philippines Clashes - 2002-01-16

At least 20 people have died in the southern Philippines in two days of clashes between army rangers and policemen loyal to the former governor of the Autonomous Muslim Region. Authorities say the dead include soldiers, police officers and at least five civilians.

Authorities in the southern Philippines have ordered army and police units to remain in their barracks after two days of violence in the city of Jolo, 1,000 kilometers south of Manila.

Reporters in the region say the town is tense and most of its streets are deserted. They say civilians erected barricades in parts of the city, fearing reprisal attacks.

Wednesday's clash occurred when policemen reportedly attacked a vehicle carrying Philippine army rangers near a market in Jolo. "We believe it was related to yesterday's incident," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jose Mabanta, who noted that authorities are investigating the attack. "We are asking people to take it calmly and cooler heads this time should prevail."

Tuesday's fighting reportedly erupted during a rally by supporters of the former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Nur Misuari. Reports say police, who support the former governor, clashed with army troops after a soldier in civilian clothes was discovered at the rally and accused of being a spy.

Mr. Misuari is being held on a base outside Manila on charges of rebellion. The Philippine government brought the charges after supporters the former governor battled with the army last November, a fight that killed more than 100 people. The government says Mr. Misuari instigated the uprising to disrupt regional elections, which he opposed.

Mr. Misuari led a separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines for more than two decades before signing a peace agreement with the government five years ago. The deal created the autonomous Muslim region and made him its governor. Hundreds of fighters from his Moro National Liberation Front were integrated into the Philippine security forces as part of the accord.

Following November's clash, Mr. Misuari fled to Malaysia. He was arrested and returned to the Philippines 10 days ago.

Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao recently said the Philippine government wants Mr. Misuari to face the charges despite fears that having him return to the country would lead to unrest.

"This government is committed to upholding the rule of law," stressed mr. Tiglao. "And no man, even with such a checkered history as Misuari, is above the law."

The Philippine government says it wants the trial to begin as soon as possible. If convicted, Mr. Misuari faces up to 20 years in prison.