COTABATO, Philippines (AFP) — Muslim separatists traded mortar fire with troops in the southern Philippines just hours after the Supreme Court stopped a land deal between them and the government, the military said Tuesday.
The mortar attack by an unknown number of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels on soldiers stationed near Midsayap town lasted for about half an hour late Monday, the military said.
The rebels had taken positions in the town's outskirts, displacing more than 300 families, in violation of a 2003 ceasefire accord, the military said.
"The MILF fired about a dozen mortars toward army positions," said regional army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Julieto Ando. "We returned mortar fire, but there were no reports of casualties."
Ando said the rebels who attacked apparently ignored commands from the MILF leadership to leave the area as both sides negotiated a deal on territory.
The Supreme Court in Manila on Monday stopped the government from signing a deal that would have given the MILF administrative and economic power over a large semi-autonomous area in southern Mindanao island.
The deal was to have been signed Tuesday in Malaysia, which has been brokering peace talks between the two sides.
Embarrassed Philippine negotiators who arrived in Kuala Lumpur after the order was released insisted the deal was not unconstitutional.
"This temporary delay has disappointed all of us and at the Supreme Court we will present our case why we should continue with the signing of the memorandum agreement for ancestral domain, which is within the law," Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo told a news conference in Malaysia.
"We are confident eventually we should be able to return and have this memorandum on ancestral domain signed," he added.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal meanwhile blamed "politicking" within government for the debacle, arguing that the aborted signing was only a formality.
"We have initialed the text of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain last July 27, 2008. The pact is a done deal. It is binding on the contracting parties," he said in a statement.
"This is not even a setback to the MILF. We (have) the upper hand, especially in the battle for moral ascendancy," he said.
The agreement was meant to pave the way for a final political settlement to end the MILF's 30-year fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern third of this largely Roman Catholic nation.
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