Four years after a peace treaty raised hopes of an end to the Philippines' decades-old Muslim secessionist rebellion, peace in the country's impoverished southern Mindanao region appears increasingly elusive.
In a southern Philippine province, a Muslim rebel group is threatening to execute Americans unless the United States releases convicted terrorists, including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The group also says it will release 29 Filipino hostages it holds - but only if all Christian residents of the province are forbidden from displaying crosses in public.
The number of casualties and evacuees in the past month's fighting in Lanao del Norte province rate on the scale of a major disaster, surpassing even the 68,000 people who were forced to flee from the eruption of Mayon volcano in February.
The clashes are the most serious since the government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) began talks in 1997.
Over the years, the insurgency has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted the economy in Mindanao, one of the country's most resource-rich regions and home to its Muslim minority.
Hopes for peace rose in 1996, when the Moro National Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group, signed a peace treaty in which it accepted autonomy, not independence. But the compromise was rejected by the MILF, a breakaway faction that wants to establish an independent Islamic state.
President Joseph Estrada has rejected any kind of Muslim independence, saying a dismemberment of the country is unacceptable.
The recent clashes flared last month when MILF guerrillas attacked Army outposts in several Lanao del Norte towns. As the military fought the MILF in Lanao del Norte, a smaller but more radical Muslim rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf, seized more than 50 hostages, including a Roman Catholic priest and several children.
The Abu Sayyaf rebels were still holding 29 hostages on April 14. Then on April 17 they threatened to kidnap or kill Americans in the Philippines if the US rejects their demand for the jailed terrorists, who include Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people, and Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, accused of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks.
The US yesterday rejected the Muslim rebels' demands and vowed to protect Americans whom the guerrillas had threatened to kidnap or kill.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society