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18 die in Filipino rebel attack

Dozens of communist rebels attacked armed tribesmen, who were later reinforced by army troops, in a southern Philippine province Tuesday, igniting pockets of fighting that killed 18 combatants, military officials said.

It was one of the bloodiest, single-day attacks this year from Marxist insurgency, which has been going for 45 years.

New People's Army guerrillas attacked Manobo tribesmen in a village of Prosperidad town in Agusan del Sur province after dawn, sparking a two-hour gunbattle that killed 12 insurgents and four tribesmen, said army Maj. Gen. Ricardo Visaya.

Visaya said army troops were deployed to reinforce the tribesmen and block possible escape routes of the guerrillas, igniting more fighting in nearby villages that killed a soldier and another rebel. Army troops tipped off the Manobos about a possible rebel attack, allowing the tribesmen to brace for the battle, he said.

The Maoist guerrillas withdrew into the woods, and army troops, backed by rocket-firing helicopters, pursued them, military officials said.

The rebels were trying to recruit the tribesmen, but that turned violent when the tribesmen refused, according to regional military commander Lt. Gen. Rainier Cruz.

It was not immediately clear if the fighting was linked to longstanding rivalries over control of small gold-mining activities in parts of Agusan del Sur, about 830 kilometres (515 miles) southeast of Manila.

"The Manobos didn't want to be disturbed. They would like to have a peaceful community," Visaya told reporters.

The guerrillas have been fighting since 1969 but the number of their armed fighters has dwindled over the years due to battle setbacks, surrenders and factionalism. But they still remain one of the country's most serious security threats.

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