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Philippines troops clash with separatists

Filipino soldiers
The military has been accused of conspiring with the kidnappers.  

By Rufi Vigilar in Manila

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- Fighting between government troops and two Muslim separatist groups has escalated, as the government tries to end a drawn-out hostage crisis with one and continue peace talks with the other.

Philippine troops engaged Abu Sayyaf members in a gun battle Saturday, in one of five reported skirmishes in the southern Philippines the past week.

Police troops raided an Abu Sayyaf safehouse in the remote southern province of Sulu, capturing a brother of Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Sabaya and three others.

The Armed Forces Southern Command said the raid took place the same day another Abu Sayyaf band torched the house of government militia members in neighboring Basilan province.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels, who are holding peace talks with the government, also attacked military patrols Thursday and Friday in Lanao del Norte province.

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    A similar attack also took place in Maguindanao province, where former MILF headquarters was located, forcing some 500 families to flee the crossfire.

    The Abu Sayyaf still hold some 20 people captive, among them three Americans the guerrillas claim to have beheaded in addition to 10 executions already confirmed.

    Integrity probe

    Military officials have downplayed rebel encounters the past week as isolated incidents but incidents that emphasized the government's difficulties in ending the Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis and persuading MILF rebels to give up their arms.

    A congressional inquiry, which ended Friday, probed the possible connivance of military officials who have failed to subdue the Abu Sayyaf despite additional government troops.

    Three Americans were among those abducted May 27 from a beach resort in western Palawan province before being taken to Basilan.

    Barely a week later, the Abu Sayyaf were able to slip through a military cordon around the Basilan provincial hospital, taking more hostages as they fled.

    A Catholic priest and civilian witnesses allege the military shared in ransom payments for the release of a Philippine businessman and two other hostages during the hospital siege.

    The inquiry report expected later this month is meant only to aid legislation, specially on raising budget allocations for security forces, rather than convict any wrongdoers.

    The military has said the rescue of hostages was being hampered not only by the rugged jungle terrain but also by the tacit aid given by sympathetic civilians and bands of MILF rebels.

    Ceasefire violations

    Although the government and the MILF reached a ceasefire agreement during a round of peace talks hosted by Malaysia in early August, local monitoring teams still have to be set up to document any violations of the truce.

    Secretary Eduardo Ermita, presidential adviser on the peace process, told CNN that skirmishes with the MILF since the truce will be a main sticking point in the next round of talks set on the third week of September.

    The monitoring teams will be created together with representatives of the 57-nation pan-Islamic Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ermita added.

    The MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a 1996 peace deal with the government, giving up armed rebellion and opting for Muslim autonomy in Mindanao.

    The MILF is now the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, with an estimated 15,000 members.

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