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Philippine Troops Battle Muslim Rebels

Government troops backed by helicopter gunships battled Muslim gunmen Friday in the hills where they fled after ravaging this southern Philippine town and killing dozens of its residents.

Military spokesmen said at least 20 people were killed Friday, including five civilians taken hostage by the extremist Abu Sayyaf group. One hostage who escaped said he was forced to dig graves for five slain gunmen who may not have been included in the military death toll.

Brig. Gen. Rene Cardones said more than 300 government troops were involved in the fighting and about 900 soldiers were on standby. “We are in a better position now than two days ago,” he said.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen were blamed for Tuesday’s attack on this predominately Roman Catholic town of about 50,000 people located about 485 miles south of Manila.

But the Philippine National Police said members of two other, larger Muslim groups -the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - joined in the raid.

Abu Sayyaf members have been linked to defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and to plots to kill Pope John Paul II and blow up U.S. airliners. The group has been blamed for numerous bombings, killings and kidnappings of Christians in the Philippines since 1991.

Police said Friday that 49 people died in Tuesday’s raid, but the Department of Social Welfare put the figure at 52.

Friday’s fighting was centered around the towns of R.T. Lim, 12 miles to the southwest, and Siocon, about 30 miles to the west.

Capt. Melquiades Feliciano said 13 people - five Abu Sayyaf members, three militiamen and five civilian hostages - were killed in the Siocon fighting. Seven more Abu Sayyaf members were killed near R.T. Lim, Feliciano said.

The violence in this western region of Mindanao raised fears of a bigger conflict between majority Roman Catholics and Muslims.

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