Philippine rebels, massacre suspects clash, 5 dead

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By Manny Mogato

MANILA, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Fierce fighting erupted between rogue Muslim rebels and an armed group believed involved in the massacre of 57 people in the southern Philippines in November, army officials said on Friday, warning of potential anarchy.

Troops rushed to a marshland area in Maguindanao province to prevent the conflict from spreading and leading to lawlessness on the resource-rich southern island of Mindanao, Major-General Anthony Alcantara, army commander in the area, told Reuters.

Five people were killed and an undetermined number wounded in Thursday night's four-hour clash between the rebels and remnants of an armed civilian militia under the control of the powerful Ampatuan clan, suspects in the Nov. 23 massacre of 57 people.

"We're working closely with the ceasefire panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end violence in the area," Alcantara told Reuters, saying the conflict may affect ongoing peace talks with the country's largest Muslim rebel group.

"We can't allow anarchy and lawlessness to reign in this part of the country," he said, adding rebels and armed groups were attempting to lord it over the province after the fall from grace of members of the powerful Ampatuan clan implicated in the massacre.

Six clan members are currently detained on charges from rebellion to murder.

Hundreds of residents have fled Datu Saudi Ampatuan town after dozens of houses were burned during the Thursday fighting, Eid Kabalu, a rebel spokesman, told Reuters by phone.

"The situation here is very fluid and complicated," he said, adding a decades-old land dispute on the edge of Liguasan marsh, a large wetland believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, could also have fueled the latest conflict.

Last month the government imposed a short-lived martial law and cracked down on the Ampatuan clan's 2,000-member civilian militia force, seizing more than 1,000 assault rifles, machineguns, mortars and anti-tank weapons and arresting hundreds.

But many militia force members have remained unaccounted for, roaming the hills and marshlands and creating potential security problems in the province. (Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Jerry Norton)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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