Renewed fighting between Muslim rebels and the Army in the southern Philippines has caused at least eight deaths and forced nearly 130,000 people to flee their homes. The clashes have been sparked by a controversial deal to expand a Muslim autonomous zone in the region, which was created in 1996 as part of a peace accord between the Filipino government and Muslim rebels. The fighting highlights the sectarian tensions that plague the country.
According to the BBC, troops began their attack on Sunday, after Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels failed to leave North Cotabato Province, which is not included in the five-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The fighting has caused many families to be displaced, reports the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading Filipino newspaper.
According to Asia News, trouble began last week when the Supreme Court issued an order to halt the signing of a deal between the government and MILF rebels following a wave of protests throughout the Philippines. Earlier this month, government and MILF negotiators were expected in Malaysia to sign an agreement laying down new borders for the ARMM. Acting on a petition filed by Christian politicians in North Cotabato who fear losing land and power to the Muslims, the Supreme Court stopped the deal, even though the government insisted it would end the 10-year-long conflict with the Muslim rebel group.
The deal would have been a major step toward the peaceful resolution of a long-running Islamic insurgency, which has claimed some 100,000 lives, reported the BBC.
The government had given approximately 1,000 MILF insurgents until Friday morning to vacate 15 villages in five North Cotabato townships that the rebels have occupied for more than a month. Although the MILF initially agreed to the withdrawal, rebels stayed put, prompting the government to launch an assault, reports the Associated Press.
MILF rebels claim, however, that the current fighting began when the government violated a cease-fire agreement with the rebels and went against the decided upon pullout process in the North Cotabato region, reports The Daily Tribune, a Filipino newspaper.
Spurring further confusion about why fighting began Sunday, MILF rebels point out that their "repositioning" within the region was not in response to the deadline mandated by the Army and was instead in compliance with a joint resolution signed with the government on Aug. 1, reports GMA News.
According to the Associated Press, scheduled elections in ARMM continued despite the violence.
An editorial in The Philippine Star, another leading newspaper, highlights the importance of the local ARMM elections in the context of renewed fighting between the government and MILF rebels.