NORTH COTABATO, Philippines – Six civilians including a four-year-old boy were killed as a feud between two Muslim rebel groups escalated in Mindanao, police said Monday.
The deaths bring to 19 the number of people killed since the clashes erupted a month ago, with commanders from the rival groups battling for control of valuable rice farming land in the province of North Cotabato.
However the latest casualties, which occurred over the weekend, were the first time civilians had been killed.
The six villagers died as the warring groups fired mortars and rifles at the each other in the remote town of Kabacan, said local police chief Superintendent Joseph Semillano.
“Civilians in the area told us there were already six fatalities as of Sunday, including the boy,” he told reporters.
The violence has pitted hundreds of guerrillas from a unit of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) against a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The MILF has been waging a decades-old struggle to forge an independent Muslim homeland in Mindanao, and is set to resume peace talks with the government this week.
However the MILF leadership has admitted to losing control of some factions in recent months, in developments that have raised alarm in Manila.
The rival MNLF signed a peace treaty with Manila in 1996 but many of its members have kept their weapons, and its leaders similarly cannot always control sections of the group.
Kabacan social welfare chief Susan Makalipat said the dead child belonged to a family living beside an evacuation centre which they thought was safe from the fighting.
“The mother had just gotten food supplies for the family from the evacuation centre. As the children were looking at the food, a stray bullet came into their home and hit the boy,” Makalipat told Agence France-Presse.
About 6,500 villagers, mostly impoverished Muslim farm hands, had already fled the fighting, she said, but some people had remained to guard their farms.
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