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Correspondents shot at in disputed Maguindanao area

(CMFR/IFEX) - On 1 October 2008, three Mindanao-based correspondents were reportedly shot at in Maguindanao during a supposed clash between the Philippine army and alleged members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatist group. However, the MILF has said that it had no troops in the area at the time of the incident and accused the army of shooting at the correspondents so they would stop taking photographs. Maguindanao is located approximately 900 kilometres from Manila.

Agence France Press photographer Mark Navales, "Philippine Daily Inquirer" newspaper correspondent Jeoffrey Maitem, and GMA News correspondent Ferdinand Cabrera were taking photographs and footage of burning houses along the national highway in Pagatin village when the incident took place, the Manila-based "Philippine Daily Inquirer" reported.

"We ducked for cover inside our van and our driver hurriedly left the area. Some sniper bullets were going our direction," Navales told the "Philippine Daily Inquirer". GMA-7 television network also caught the incident on camera (watch the video here: http://www.gmanews.tv/largevideo/related/29450/2-GMA-News-correspondents-fired-at-in-Maguindanao ).

The fighting started around 9:00 a.m. (local time) after soldiers allegedly spotted members of MILF Commander Ameril Umbra Kato's group along the national highway, the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" reported. The government troops have been searching for Kato and another MILF commander for allegedly attacking several towns in Mindanao in August. Several civilians were killed in the attacks.

"That's the same area where the rebels who ambushed a military convoy on Monday [29 September] positioned themselves. The houses burned there was due to the fighting and we have nothing to do with it," Lieutenant Colonel Julieto Ando, the spokesperson for the army's 6th Division, told the "Philippine Daily Inquirer".

In an interview with GMA-7, Philippine army spokesperson Major Armand Rico said that "a lawless MILF group" fired at the correspondents. "We can't prevent some of our friends from the media from being targets of the lawless MILF group's attacks," Rico added.

But the MILF has denied that it was even in the area. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" that "we had no troop movements today. The bursts of fire that happened came from the government side."

"I think it's only part of their move to prevent reporters from taking pictures of houses still on fire," Kabalu said.

Firefights between the MILF and Philippine government forces resumed in August after the signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) was stalled. The MOA-AD, if signed, would have provided for the creation of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity and the drafting of a final peace agreement. Peace negotiations between the MILF and the government of the Republic of the Philippines started in 1997.

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