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Renewed clashes between rebels, Philippine troops

Zamboanga fighting
Decades of fighting between Muslim rebels and government troops have impoverished Zamboanga  

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- Fresh fighting erupted once again in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga after government troops scouring a battle-scarred rebel camp clashed with guerrilla holdouts.

Philippine troops encountered about 40 rebels belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who had been left behind after the retreat of the main body of the guerrillas.

The rebels retreated after reaching an agreement Wednesday with the government to release more than 110 hostages they had captured in return for safe passage.

"Security forces clashed with this breakaway group at dawn on Thursday, and soldiers recovered a machine gun," Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu told the Associated Press news agency.

"Soldiers are still pursing the gunmen, and we will not allow them to take new hostages or escape this time."

Cimatu said that no soldiers were wounded in the latest clash. He also said that six rebels were captured, but he knew of no casualties on the side of the guerillas.

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Early Tuesday morning, rebels loyal to renegade governor Nur Misuari, refused military orders to leave the complex and endured heavy bombardment from government forces.

They took at least 118 hostages but released them in batches late Tuesday and Wednesday in exchange for safe passage.

Misuari has been charged with rebellion for instigating an attack last week on an army outpost in Jolo to disrupt regional elections that were expected to pave the way for his ouster.

The embattled rebel leader is now spending time in a jail in Malaysia for illegal entry, after he fled the Philippines to evade arrest.

Malaysia says it is ready to deport Misuari to the Philippines. But Manila says it is in no rush to take him back.

A Philippine government spokesman says Malaysia was free to hold on to him while they conducted their investigation.

Abu Sayyaf

Zamboanga is a resource-rich province, 850 km (530 miles) south of Manila, which has become impoverished due to decades of conflict between Muslim secessionist groups and the military.

It is home to the predominantly Roman Catholic country's 5 million-strong Muslim minority and has been the site of bloody conflict for decades.

The more extremist Muslim group Abu Sayyaf has been holding hostages, including two Americans, on nearby Basilan island for six months.

Although the government has dismissed it as a mere bandit group, Washington has reason to believe that the Abu Sayyaf has links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organization.


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