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Philippine Troops to Resume Offensive Against Rebels - 2003-02-12

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ordered government troops to resume an offensive against Muslim rebels in the south, a day after she had halted the battle. The fighting threatens to unravel nearly two years of peace talks between the two sides.

Thousands of Philippine soldiers restarted their offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front late Wednesday after President Arroyo gave the order. A day earlier, she had halted the offensive.

The fighting could undo nearly two years of peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.

Early in the day, government efforts to end the battle failed after the rebels refused to attend an emergency meeting of the peace talks panel.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the MILF saw no point for the meeting because the military continued firing at MILF positions overnight.

The fighting erupted Tuesday morning in the southern town of Pikit. Military officials say the rebels are hiding kidnappers.

Military officials say at least 60 rebels have been killed since Tuesday. Thousands of villagers have fled to urban centers since Saturday, when soldiers started deploying in the area.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye Wednesday emphasized that the decision to resume the offensive is not directed against the MILF but at criminal elements in the area. He urged the MILF to give up the kidnappers hiding in its camps.

The MILF has been fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines for more than three decades.

Despite the current crisis, Mr. Kabalu said that the MILF is willing to resume the peace negotiations with the government in Malaysia later this month, as scheduled.