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Hunt for Philippine governor steps up

These Marines are reinforcing the troops in Jolo following attacks by MNLF forces
These Marines are reinforcing the troops in Jolo following attacks by MNLF forces  

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- As Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo returns from a visit to the U.S. about 1,500 fresh government troops are preparing to battle a Muslim revolt in the south.

Three battalions in full combat gear are bound for the southern island of Jolo to hunt for the former governor, Nur Misuari and forces loyal to him.

Amid growing fears of more clashes, Monday's elections to choose the governor's successor will still go ahead despite calls that turnout will be low amongst the 1.1 million voters.

Already 7,000 soldiers backed by bomber aircraft and artillery are scouring the countryside following court orders for the arrest of Misuari on charges of rebellion.

Clashes between government troops and about 600 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters began Monday when hundreds of the Muslim guerrillas stormed an army outpost in Jolo.

Election fears

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Administration officials have accused Muslim regional governor Misuari of instigating the revolt to prevent the holding of local elections that he is likely to lose.

Elections Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco who has tentative voting plans in place for November 26 told the Associated Press news agency that recent fighting has displaced thousands of people in the region and that voting may not be their primary concern.

Election officials are also worried that people in remote areas, weakened by the Ramadan holy month of fasting, may also refuse to walk 10 kilometers (six miles) or more to their nearest polling station.

The elections are to be held in the southern provinces of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Steeped in Islam it has some autonomy from the capital Manila, 960 km (600 miles) to the north.

As news of new troop movements came in, the death toll rose to more than 100 including soldiers, rebels and civilians after the Philippine military bombed several suspected hide-outs of Misuari supporters.

Misuari's whereabouts unknown

Bush and Arroyo
Arroyo won pledges from U.S. President George W. Bush for nearly $100 million in security assistance  

Misuari says the elections violate a 1996 peace deal signed between the government and his Moro National Liberation Front after a 30-year struggle for self rule that left more than 100,000 dead.

Misuari, who headed the MLNF until earlier this year, says he was not consulted about the election process.

He has not appeared in public in recent days and his supporters say he is with armed supporters on the island of Jolo.

Other unsubstantiated reports say that he may have fled to Sabah, Malaysia.

The MNLF says it has 20,000 fighters, although analysts and government intelligence officials say the actual figure is much lower.


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