Asia Crisis

Philippines says seizes rebel bases; kills 100

MANILA, June 15 (Reuters) - Fighting across oil and gas-rich marshlands in the southern Philippines has escalated with members of the country's largest Muslim rebel group reinforcing rogue guerrillas, an army field commander said on Monday.

Troops have been fighting rogue Muslim guerrillas since last August and if reports of regular members of the Moro Islamic Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) joining the fighting are confirmed, it would mark a dangerous expansion to the war.

Soldiers have captured at least eight Muslim rebel bases in south, seizing a cache of weapons and explosives and killing nearly 100 guerrillas in 10 days of fighting, Colonel Medardo Geslani, an army brigade commander, told reporters.

Violence across the marshlands and nearby hills on the southern island of Mindanao has spread in recent weeks and displaced more than 50,000 families, pushing back prospects of peace talks stalled since August 2008. [ID:nMAN491554] [ID:nMAN494095]

Geslani said troops had recovered dozens of assault rifles, crude bombs and undetermined rounds of ammunition in five of eight guerrilla bases across Maguindanao province.

No material was recovered in the other three, he said, adding Muslim rebels from other areas in Maguindanao province have joined the fighting between troops and a rogue faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Geslani said 93 guerrillas were killed and dozens wounded since June 4 when troops launched an air and ground assault on key Muslim rebel bases in Maguindanao, an MILF stronghold.

It was not possible to verify the claim.

He said soldiers counted at least 50 mangled bodies found in concrete bunkers that were directly hit by artillery fire and aerial bombs.

"We are in the process of methodically destroying them. We're winning in the war."

Geslani said fighting has spread to other areas across the marshland because some MILF units were sending reinforcements to rogue Muslim rebels.

Less than a dozen troops were wounded in 10 days of fighting for the control of rebel bases that sit on strategic points that control traffic of people and goods near the marshland area, he added.

Renegade members of the MILF went on the rampage after peace talks between the government and rebels collapsed in August 2008.

Nearly 600 people have been killed since then, many of them civilians caught in the fighting. About 2,000 houses in Muslim communities have been set on fire. (Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by David Fox)