ZAMBOANGA CITY, December 17, 2003  (STAR) Deadly clashes in the southern Philippines between Muslim separatists and government troops could delay the resumption of peace talks in January, a rebel spokesman said yesterday.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Eid Kabalu claimed that MILF forces had killed five soldiers in an abandoned mosque in the town of Datu Piang, in Maguindanao province, early on Tuesday and that two others were being held as "prisoners of war."

"The troops, who used the mosque as a garrison, ignored orders to surrender peacefully and instead opened fire on MILF fighters, triggering a gunbattle that left at least five soldiers dead," Kabalu told reporters in southern Zamboanga city by telephone from his base in the south.

"If fighting continues it would threaten the peace talks," he said.

Fighting began on Saturday when soldiers reportedly chasing a band of kidnappers holding a local car dealer hostage strayed into an MILF-controlled area in Datu Piang. Reports said the kidnappers merged with MILF forces and engaged the soldiers in fierce clashes that left 10 gunmen and two soldiers dead by Sunday.

The government casualties, as claimed by Kabalu on Tuesday, could not be independently confirmed.

Armed forces chief Gen. Narciso Abaya said that the government operation was aimed at flushing out the kidnappers and rescuing a 24-year-old captive identified as Norman Sia from the kidnappers.

Sia was kidnapped by a Muslim gang called Pentagon on Dec. 8.

"We are pursuing the kidnappers and not the MILF," Abaya said, but did not say how the fighting could affect the talks.

The 12,500-strong MILF, which has been waging a 25-year rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the south, is set to resume formal peace talks with Manila in January.

It had earlier signed a truce with the government and agreed to allow international monitors led by Malaysia to observe the ceasefire.

The military has repeatedly accused the MILF of violating the ceasefire by sheltering members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network and other outlaw groups like Pentagon, made up of former Muslim rebels.

Earlier, Presidential Adviser on Special Concerns Norberto Gonzales said everything is ready for the resumption of peace talks in Malaysia in January between the government and the MILF. AFP, Edith Regalado, John Unson

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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