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Philippine rebels pull back from occupied lands

ICC Note:

After a government ultimatum to withdraw or face attack, Muslim rebels have begun to slowly withdraw from the lands they forcibly occupied by driving out nearly 6500 Christian residents.

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8/8/08 Philippines (IHT) Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines started to withdraw from several occupied Christian villages Friday, avoiding a major confrontation with government troops at a pivotal time in their peace process.

About 800 Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas began leaving a dozen farms in the predominantly Christian province of North Cotabato, said Brig. Gen. Reynaldo Sealana, head of the government’s cease-fire team. The withdrawal heads off a government ultimatum to leave or face attack.

On Thursday, top police and defense officials in Manila accused the rebels of burning houses, destroying farms, stealing cattle and driving away 6,500 residents from their homes.

The government and the MILF rebels were set to sign a preliminary accord Tuesday expanding an autonomous Muslim region in exchange for ending the bloody insurgency, but the Supreme Court, acting on a petition by North Cotabato’s Christian politicians, blocked it Monday.

Under the agreement, the existing five-province Muslim region would be expanded to add more than 700 villages, provided residents approve the move in a vote.

The agreement would also grant the rebels sweeping powers in running their affairs, a prospect that has prompted angry protests by Christians in the main southern region of Mindanao and by Manila’s political opposition.

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