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Several killed in fresh fighting between Philippine troops, rebels

Philippine troops have clashed with separatists in a southern village, leaving at least three soldiers and four rebels dead.

The sporadic clashes erupted on Tuesday and Wednesday in a village in Ungkaya Pukan town on the island province of Basilan.

Leaders of the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front separatist movement separately ordered their forces to halt the fighting and allow de-escalation talks on Thursday.

Military and rebel commanders at the scene of the fighting accused each other of violating the 2014 peace accord, which eased years of bloody and extensive fighting between government forces and the rebel front.

The conflict underscored the fragility of law and order in a southern region faced with a surfeit of loose firearms, private armies, crushing poverty and a long history of violence.

Decommissioning process

Under the 2014 peace pact, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front dropped its secessionist demand in exchange for a more powerful and better-funded Muslim autonomous region called Bangsamoro.

The five-province Muslim region is now led by former rebel leaders under a transition period ending in 2025.

Nearly half of about 40,000 rebels have agreed to lay down their firearms and return to normal life in exchange for livelihood packages under the peace pact. 

Thousands of others have kept their firearms while waiting to be subjected to a years-long “decommissioning process,” a subtle term for surrendering their weapons. 

The process has been delayed amid complaints that former rebels have failed to receive promised cash and other incentives from the government.

“This is very alarming because the implications are worrisome to us,” Naguib Sinarimbo, the interior minister of the Bangsamoro autonomous region, said. 

“Our worry is if there are sparks like this, concerns may arise whether the decommissioning process would continue.”

READ MORE: Mass rally shows support for United Bangsamoro Justice Party in Philippines

Violation of peace agreement

Domingo Gobway, an army brigade commander in Basilan, said his forces were cracking down on armed men involved in extortion and intimidation using homemade bombs.

Amid the military campaign, the gunmen fled to a Basilan village called Ulitan, where they were protected by Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas, he said.

The rebels and the extortion gang were forced to leave Ulitan village in September amid the military crackdown, but Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas returned on Monday with their firearms in violation of an agreement that rebel firearms and other weapons should be restricted in mutually identified Moro Islamic Liberation Front encampments, Gobway said.

Mohagher Iqbal, who led the rebels in years of peace talks with the government, said the latest violence “was an unfortunate incident that no one desired to happen … while the peace process’ dividends have started to be felt by the people.”

Iqbal called for the combatants’ “immediate disengagement to prevent the situation from escalating” and urged government and rebel ceasefire representatives to carry out an investigation to prevent a repeat of such deadly clashes.

READ MORE:Bomb attack on bus in Philippines linked to possible extortion attempt

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