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Philippines: Muslim Rebels Briefly Take Dozens of Hostages - 2003-02-13

Muslim separatist rebels in the southern Philippines briefly took dozens of hostages, as government troops continued their offensive for the third 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 in the southern Philippines.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels raided a village in North Cotabato province, some 900 kilometers from the capital, Manila.

Military spokesman, Major Julieto Ando, says the rebels were searching for food and used a number of residents as "human shields" as they escaped from advancing government troops. All were later released.

In neighboring Sultan Kudarat province, another group of rebels also took dozens of villagers hostage after an encounter with government soldiers.

Provincial Governor Pax Mangudadatu says all the hostages were released after being held several hours.

The military says dozens of MILF fighters were killed in the clash.

This is the third day of fighting, which began after 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 separatist conflict. The MILF is fighting for a separate Islamic state in predominantly Christian Philippines.

But a rebel spokesman says the MILF is still willing to continue peace talks with the government despite the ongoing conflict.