Philippine soldiers backed by air support killed 19 Muslim separatist rebels in separate clashes in the country's troubled south as the army continued operations against guerrillas blamed for attacks on civilians three months ago, the military said.
Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, spokesman for the military's 6th Infantry Division, said soldiers backed by rocket-firing planes encountered about 100 Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas on Friday in three separate areas in a marshy region in Maguindanao province. He said rebels customarily carry away their casualties, but civilian informants and intelligence sources reported that 19 guerrillas have been killed. He said three soldiers were slightly wounded and rejoined the military operation.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denied Ando's report, dismissing it as "military propaganda."
Ando said soldiers were checking reports by civilians that rebels were planning to attack military positions when they encountered the guerrillas led by Ameril Umbra Kato, one of three rebel commanders who are targets of military operations for allegedly led attacks in August that killed dozens of civilians.
"Our operations against Kato are ongoing," Ando said. "They were mobile and encountered our troops going to the direction of their location."
A 2001 cease-fire has largely held in the Philippines' troubled south, but fresh violence erupted in August when the three rebel commanders went on a deadly rampage in predominantly Christian communities after the Supreme Court blocked the signing of a proposed accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region. More than 100 civilians were killed and more than half a million were displaced at the height of the fighting.