MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine soldiers killed 14 Muslim guerrillas in an overnight battle to capture a rebel position in the south, an army spokesman said on Saturday, as the number of displaced from the military offensive rose to 80,000.
The military has mounted air and ground assault on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a small but violent splinter group of the largest Muslim guerrilla force in Mindanao, after 44 police commandos were killed in January.
The predominantly Christian Philippines has been battling Muslim rebels in the south of the archipelago for decades and while negotiations with the biggest group have raised hopes for peace, fighting with smaller factions erupts regularly.
Local officials have appealed for a stop to the fighting, but the army has asked for three more days to achieve its goal of crippling the rebel capabilities to spoil the government’s peace efforts in Mindanao.
Army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Cabunoc said 13 soldiers were wounded in the fighting overnight.
As of Saturday, the army claimed three Muslim rebel bases, including a factory for improvised bombs, had been seized on the southern island of Mindanao, near where 44 commandos were killed in a secret mission to capture a Malaysian bomb-maker with a $5 million bounty from the U.S. State Department.
President Benigno Aquino has promised the biggest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), autonomy in a southern region in exchange for peace. But the Senate and House of Representatives suspended work on legislation for the autonomous region amid an outcry after the January clash.
($1 = 44.2800 Philippine pesos)
Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Jeremy Laurence