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Thousands flee to evacuation centers over Philippine fighting

MANILA -- About 3,000 people huddled in evacuation centers in the southern Philippines on Sunday, officials said, seeking to escape fighting between two Muslim armed groups.

The rivals were in a stand-off but more violence could break out between them at any time, said regional police chief Senior Superintendent Marcelo Pintac.

“This is a family feud. We have an effort (to open peace talks) but they don't want to stop. They want war,” he told AFP.

The fighting pits Commander Adzmie of the country's main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, against Commander Abunawas, leader of an armed band that broke away from the front.

The clashes are over longstanding land dispute between Adzmie and Abunawas, government and rebel officials said. Similar land disputes between Muslim clans have led to violence in the often lawless southern Philippines over many years.

Pintac estimated that at least 16 fighters had been killed in the unrest, which broke out last week.

Von al-Haq, spokesman for the 12,000-strong rebel group, had similar estimates and said his group has been trying to open peace negotiations with the forces of Abunawas but had been unsuccessful so far.

“We have orders on the ground not to attack the forces of Abunawas unless they attack first,” he said.

The fighting began in the town of Datu Piang but sporadic clashes had taken place in neighbouring towns at the weekend, forcing more people to flee, said regional administrator Naguib Sinarembo.

“As of this time, there is no fighting although we expect in a short while, they will escalate hostilities,” said Sinarembo.

The military, which has a ceasefire in place with the rebels as part of protracted peace talks, has not become involved in the fighting but is trying to prevent it from spreading and endangering those who fled.

The rebel front has long fought for an independent Muslim state in the southern third of the Catholic-dominated Philippines, but has agreed to negotiate for autonomy instead.

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Thousands flee to evacuation centers over Philippine fighting
A child carried by her grandmother cries at a government evacuation center, to escape the violence due to a bloody feud between rival Muslim rebel groups in Datu Piang, Maguindanao ...

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