Separatists slained: Philippines

BANASILAN: More than a thousand Muslim rebels have been killed in the southern Philippines over the past year, despite the recovery of only 278 bodies, according to a military spokesman.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Ponce also said he knew of only 22 soldiers killed in the fighting, despite claims by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that its rebels had killed 500 soldiers in its current offensive.

In August three MILF commanders broke a 2003 ceasefire and began attacking Christian communities in Mindanao, after the Supreme Court suspended a draft accord on Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines.

In Manila, armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner earlier issued a statement saying that military fatalities against the rebels "do not even reach a hundred."

Speaking during a military patrol in Banasilan, in central Mindanao, Ponce pointed out MILF positions on hills in the distance.

Despite having the MILF in their sights, Ponce told AFP, the military was not actively attacking the rebels.

"We are on a defensive stance. We are not conducting offensive operations. We are just conducting law-enforcement operations," he said.

The last gunbattle had been five days ago, although there had since been instances of bombs and mortar attacks, Ponce said.

"If the rogue MILF attacks civilian communities... that is the time we will do a counter-action," he said.

International aid agencies say that more than half a million civilians have been displaced by the fighting that began in August.

Although many civilians have returned to their homes in recent weeks, several hundred still remain in evacuation centres due to fears of more MILF attacks, said Ponce.

The 12,000-member MILF has been waging a separatist rebellion since 1978 to carve out an Islamic state in the southern part of the largely Catholic Philippines.