Army troops free villagers seized by Philippine Muslim rebels

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Philippine army troops rescued 183 villagers who had been captured by a band of Muslim rebels, killing three of the rebels in a gun battle early Sunday, the military said.

The hostages had spent the night in the mountains not far from Pamantingan village in Esperanza town in southern Sultan Kudarat province, where they were seized by Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in the early hours of Saturday, said Capt. Noel Dedoyado, a spokesman for the Philippine army's 6th Division.

The army moved in early Sunday and exchanged gunfire with rebels for about half an hour, Dedoyado said. Three rebels were killed and eight were wounded, he said, citing information the army received from the freed hostages, none of whom was hurt.

One soldier was wounded, Dedoyado said.

Dedoyado put the number of rebels at about 100, compared with earlier reports of 1,000 rebels provided by villagers who escaped capture in the raid on Saturday. After Sunday's gun battle, the rebels broke into two groups and fled into the mountains, Dedoyado said.

An MILF leader, Ed Kabalu, disputed contentions that any hostages had been taken.

Kabalu said by telephone from his remote hide-out that the MILF guerrillas had gone into Pamantingan village early Saturday and were confronted by a group of militiamen who opened fire.

Villagers fled into the mountains to escape the battle, Kabalu said.

"There was no hostage-taking," Kabalu said.

Village residents had said hostages were taken by rebels who had gone from house to house, stealing rice and other food.

The MILF is the larger of two Muslim groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

The smaller rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf, now holds 21 hostages, including 10 Western tourists, who were seized from a Malaysian resort and brought to Jolo island in the southern Philippines.