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14 Killed in Rebel Attacks, Clashes in Southern Philippines

FILE - Abu Misry Mama (front L), spokesman of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that still wants independence, along with colleagues shout "Allah Akbar" (God is Great) n Maguindanao, in southern island of Mindanao, March 28, 2014.

Muslim rebels' Christmas attacks on Christian villages in the southern Philippines have left at least 14 people dead.

Officials said Saturday that casualties included nine Christian villagers gunned down by insurgents from the group known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and at least five rebels killed by government forces on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (Thursday and Friday).

A regional military spokeswoman, Captain Joan Petinglay, said the clashes occurred in three different provinces on Mindanao island. An estimated 200 rebels were involved in at least eight attacks during the two days.

“We learned that the BIFF had plans to attack civilians and our detachments, so we went on heightened alert even before Christmas,'' Petinglay said. “That prevented the rebels from attacking villages and inflicting more casualties.”

Mindanao, home to well over 20 million people, is the only area of the Philippines with a sizable Muslim population.

The Bangsamoro group broke away from the main Muslim rebel organization in the Philippines during 2011, declaring it would fight on to create an Islamic state in the southern part of the mainly Catholic nation and reject any moves toward a truce with the government.

Some of the insurgents involved in this week's attacks had pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group in videos posted to YouTube, but police say they had no evidence directly linking the Philippine rebels to IS militants in Iraq and Syria.