MANILA, Philippines - Muslim rebels said they were pulling back from a dozen of occupied southern Philippine villages Tuesday after government forces began retaking them amid fierce fighting that has forced nearly 160,000 civilians from their homes.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno blamed Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas for refusing to leave about 15 villages in the predominantly Christian province of North Cotabato and forcing residents to abandon their farms at harvest time.
TV footage showed residents leaving with their precious water buffalos, used for plowing. They refugees described hurriedly leaving their homes at the sound of gunfire, with little time to pack their belongings.
Most headed to about 40 government-run evacuation centers, while many others took refuge with relatives. Government figures showed 83 homes were burned, most in Aleosan town.
The government on Sunday started pounding rebels using artillery and helicopter gunships after they ignored an ultimatum to withdraw. By Monday, troops regained the control of two villages in clashes that killed at least one soldier and seven guerrillas.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the guerrillas were repositioning Tuesday in line with the government call for the rebel withdrawal. But he said the pace of the withdrawal depended on the situation on the ground and called on army troops to cease firing.
"They're repositioning to a place safe and far enough to prevent exchanges of gunfire from both sides," Kabalu told The Associated Press.
He lamented the high of number of refugees, calling them "a product of war." ''But who wants a conflict like this?" Kabalu said, adding the rebels were open to a dialogue and did not want to prolong the suffering of civilians.
Government officials have said they have enough food and other supplies to cater for the displaced. Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross, said he asked for more information about the needs of the refugees.
The Office of Civil Defense reported the number of refugees at 159,123 in 56 villages in 7 townships. Kabalu said most of those in evacuation centers were Christians while Muslim residents tended to stay with relatives.
The latest flare-up in fighting in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south — the traditional Muslim homeland — comes at a crucial time in ongoing peace talks between the government and the rebels, who have been waging a bloody insurgency for self-rule for decades.
The two sides, which signed a 2003 cease-fire, had reached agreement covering the territorial makeup of a future expanded Muslim region, but the signing of the accord was halted last week by the Supreme Court.
The court was acting on a petition filed by southern Christian politicians who are wary of losing land and power to the Muslims.
The agricultural province of more than a million people is still recovering from Typhoon Fung Wong, which ravaged farmlands last month. Gov. Jesus Sacdalan said over the weekend that the fighting has made the recovery more difficult.
Separately Monday, another 300 guerrillas — also suspected of belonging to the Moro group — attacked Basilan province's Tipo Tipo township, some 186 miles southwest of North Cotabato, officials said.
The suspected rebels were protesting the election of a new governor and other officials of the five-province Muslim autonomous region that includes Basilan province, the provincial police chief Salik Macapantar said.
Marine Lt. Col. Leonard Vincent Teodoro said the rebels occupied Tipo Tipo's town hall, schools and several houses before government forces drove them out.