Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vowed to take firm action against Muslim rebels following new attacks in several towns in the southern island, Mindanao.  Officials said at least 24 people were found dead, Monday - many hacked to death by machetes -- after members of the MILF launched a wave of attacks in several towns in Lanao del Norte.  VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins has more.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the military to "defend every inch of Philippine territory" against recent attacks in the country's southern island, Mindanao, by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

In a televised statement, Ms. Arroyo said the government would "not tolerate" and "will crush any attempt to disturb peace and development in Mindanao."

The attacks come just days after the government halted military operations against the MILF in another part of Mindanao.  Those operations had forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

The fighting comes after the Philippine Supreme Court suspended a deal reached between the government and the MILF, earlier this month, that would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous zone and given the group greater autonomy.

MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal told VOA the group's leadership did not sanction the latest attacks.

"There was an attack carried out by apparently MILF elements affiliated, under Commander Bravo. But this is not sanctioned by the MILF leadership," he said.  "Nonetheless, after several hours of making contact with them and then a few hours ago, the commanders were able to get in touch with them.  They were ordered to vacate the area immediately.  So, the area is now cleared."

The military says the latest attacks show a significant number of MILF fighters do not support the peace process.

Armed Forces chief General Alexander Yano told a news conference it appeared several MILF subcommanders were not controlled by the MILF leadership and were using the peace process to launch attacks against the people of Mindanao.

However, Iqbal says he believes the peace process, which has been underway for a number of years, could still be saved.

"I believe it can be saved.  And, what is important here is the commitment of the MILF to resolve the Mindanao problems through peaceful negotiations," he added.  "That commitment is here standing very good until now?our effort remains sincere in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Mindanao."

The Philippines is a predominately Roman Catholic nation but five percent of the people are Muslims - most of them living in the south of the country.