Philippine military says 23 breakaway Muslim rebels killed in new clashes



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MANILA, Philippines — Philippine troops killed at least 23 Muslim rebels in new clashes in the restive south which raised the insurgents' death toll in a three-week government offensive to nearly 100, the military said Wednesday.

Military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang ordered the assault that began Feb. 25 against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters after they attacked civilian villages. The rebels also have been implicated in the Jan. 25 killings of 44 police commandos who were conducting a raid for a suspected Malaysian terrorist in Maguindanao.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said the 23 rebels died in fighting that broke out Tuesday with soldiers backed by at least four attack helicopters along the boundary between Datu Salibo and Datu Piang towns in Maguindanao province. The military had reported on Monday an earlier toll of 73 rebels and a suspected foreign militant killed since the offensive began.

Two marines were also killed in a separate clash in the province on Tuesday, and more than 72,000 people have been displaced since the military campaign began, officials said. Sporadic fighting continued on Wednesday, but there were no immediate reports of additional casualties.

The insurgent group, believed to number a few hundred, broke off a few years ago from the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a Muslim autonomy deal with the government last year. The breakaway rebels vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland.

"Out of the more or less 300, they have lost 100 men," Cabunoc said. "They lost one-third (of their men) already."

The 11,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front has acknowledged that its forces also clashed accidentally with the police anti-terror commandos but blamed police officials for not coordinating the anti-terror raid with them.

The main Moro rebel group's involvement in the clash, which resulted in the government's largest single-day combat loss in recent memory, has stalled the peace deal it signed with the government last year and sparked criticism of President Benigno Aquino III, who approved the raid.

Aquino blamed an ousted police commander, Getulio Napenas, for the huge combat loss, saying Napenas launched the assault despite a three-hour delay that deprived the commandos of night cover and failed to follow his order to coordinate with the military for backup.

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