The death toll from a Muslim rebel attack on an army outpost rose to 23 but top officials yesterday said the new violence would not stop the peace process between the two sides.
Seventeen fighters of the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and six soldiers were killed in the battle in the southern island of Mindanao that began on Sunday, said Colonel Jerry Jalandoni.
Another soldier is missing and feared dead.
Two soldiers were wounded and seven army rifles were stolen in the raid on the outpost at Mamasapano town, some 60km south of Cotabato city, said Jalandoni, the local brigade commander.
The attack by a unit led by MILF commander Abdul Rahman Binago was a violation of a ceasefire signed by both sides in 2002 to open the door to peace talks.
Jalandoni said it was in apparent retaliation for the military's killing of Binago's brother, a member of a bandit group called Abu Sofia, earlier this month.
Helicopter gunships and artillery were used to drive off some of the 600 MILF attackers who overran most of the outpost.
The attack came despite Binago's personal assurances there would be no fighting, Jalandoni said.
However President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman Ignacio Bunye said that the attack was "an isolated case, the perpetrators are being pursued and law and order is being restored."
Bunye said the government expected the MILF leadership to impose sanctions on the attackers, but added that "the skirmishes will not in any way, affect the ongoing peace negotiations."
The spokesman said joint MILF-government ceasefire monitoring committees and an international ceasefire monitoring team, which includes members from Brunei, Malaysia and Libya, was "working closely with both sides on the ground."
Jalandoni charged that the attack proved that there was an alliance between the MILF and other Muslim armed groups like the Abu Sofia and the Abu Sayyaf, both known mainly for kidnapping-for-ransom incidents and other crimes in the southern Philippines.
He said the MILF had been providing sanctuary to Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, in violation of the ceasefire conditions.
Ghadzali Jaafar, political affairs chief of the MILF, denied accusations his group had links to Abu Sayyaf but remarked that the attack on Mamasapano "could be the work of a few disoriented MILF who have interests in Abu Sofia."
Jaafar said they would continue peace talks but that the MILF would await an investigation by the international monitoring team before deciding what action to take.
The iinternational monitoring team was due to send representatives to the town later yesterday, Jalandoni said.
The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging a 26-year rebellion in the southern third of this largely-Christian archipelago.
Despite the signing of the ceasefire and the start of initial peace talks, sporadic clashes and military allegations that rebel commanders are sheltering members of the regional Jemaah Islamiyah terror network have strained the peace process.