Thousands flee as Philippine troops fight Bangsamoro rebels

PIKIT, Philippines - About 2,000 farmers have fled their homes in the southern Philippines after renewed fighting between government forces and renegade Muslim rebels, officials said on Saturday.

Families carrying bags of clothes and cooking implements dragged their water buffalo and cattle into the rural hamlet of Nalapaan on Mindanao island on Saturday as exploding mortar rounds could be heard in the distance.

"We can hear the fighting from here," said Mr Tibungko Abdul, village chief of Nalapaan.

"As of now we feel we are safe here, but if this worsens we may have to leave for the town centre as well," he added, referring to Pikit, the town nearest to Nalapaan and to the villages where the evacuees had come from.

The villagers fled overnight on Friday from fresh fighting between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), said provincial governor Emmylou Mendoza.

"We have about 2,000 people who have sought shelter at a local high school," Ms Mendoza told AFP.

The local military spokesman, Army Colonel Dickson Hermoso, confirmed the operation but would not provide details.

"This is an operation against lawless elements," he told AFP.

Ms Mendoza said the fighting was centred in villages near the town of Aleosan on Mindanao, the southern homeland of the large Muslim minority in the Catholic Philippines.

"The soldiers are protecting the highway. We cannot afford to have it fall into the rebels' hands, otherwise the economy of Cotabato and other provinces will be paralysed," she added.

The government is in advanced peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest of the insurgent groups, to end the decades-old conflict that had claimed 150,000 lives.

However, the BIFF opposes the peace talks, and the government alleges the group is mounting armed actions in a bid to derail the peace talks.

On Thursday, President Benigno Aquino said a series of deadly bombings in Mindanao that claimed 14 lives and left more than 70 other people injured may have been launched by groups he did not name to relieve military pressure on the BIFF.

Police reported two other violent incidents elsewhere in Mindanao in the past 24 hours, including a grenade blast outside a house that injured four people in the town of Kabacan late on Friday.

An improvised explosive went off at a roadside near the town of North Upi early on Saturday, injuring no one, while police disarmed a second device nearby.

The bombs were "most likely" meant for military convoys that use the road, said Senior Superintendent Rodelio Jocson, police chief of Maguindanao province.