Fighting with Muslim rebels puts peace plan in Philippines at risk

Fierce fighting between Muslim rebels and the Filipino military over the past three days has dealt a setback to a peace plan aimed at ending the world's longest-running insurgency and raised fears of violence spreading elsewhere in the southern Philippines.

The fighting, which has displaced at least 130,000 residents, began Sunday when Philippine armed forces attacked units of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which seized a half-dozen villages on southern Mindanao island.

Monday, unknown assailants attacked soldiers and police officers who were guarding a polling place on Basilan Island, killing one and wounding three, senior Filipino military officials said.

Tensions in the trouble-racked southern Philippines spiked last week when the country's supreme court halted the signing of an agreement that would have given an expanded autonomous homeland to Muslims in the south. The court was ruling on a petition from Christians who feared losing their lands.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while technically in a cease-fire, has been fighting for years for an independent Muslim state.

Tuesday, military officers predicted that a peace deal would be reached but said they feared more outbreaks of violence in the short term.

Parts of the southern Philippines have been a haven for two Southeast Asian terrorist groups with global links, the Abu Sayyaf Group and Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

U.S. and Filipino officials and private counter-terrorism analysts say the two groups have been diminished significantly in recent years but remain active.

Some 500 to 600 U.S. troops, mostly special operations forces, are in the southern Philippines. While barred from combat, they train and advise the Filipino military, provide intelligence to target suspected terrorists and join in goodwill operations.