12 killed in clash between army soldiers and Muslim rebels in southern Philippines

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MANILA, Philippines — Two Philippine soldiers and 10 members of a Muslim rebel group opposed to a government peace accord died in a clash Thursday, a day after the president submitted legislation to Congress to create a new Muslim autonomous region, a military commander said.

Pursuing troops caught up with about 20 rebels who had attacked an army detachment in North Cotabato province, triggering a firefight, Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan said. He said six soldiers were wounded in the two-hour gunbattle.

On Wednesday, President Benigno Aquino III presented congressional leaders with a proposed law that would create a self-governing Muslim region as part of a peace agreement concluded earlier this year with the country's main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Pangilinan, commander of the army's 6th Infantry Division, said members of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters generally launch offensives against military outposts and civilians "every time there is a breakthrough in the peace process." The group is demanding an independent state instead of autonomy within the Philippines.

He said the report of rebel casualties came from villagers. Rebels normally carry away their dead and wounded when they escape.

"They should put a stop to these atrocities and let's give peace a chance," Pangilinan said.

More than 150,000 people have died since a Muslim rebellion erupted in the 1970s, stunting the resource-rich southern region's economic growth.

The legislation submitted by Aquino fleshes out a peace deal signed in March by the country's 11,000-strong Moro rebel group. After 13 years of negotiations, the rebels accepted autonomy instead of an independent state.

A 60-member parliament is to run the autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro. It would have power over agriculture, trade, tourism and education. Muslims in the region would be subject to Islamic Shariah law, but the country's justice system would continue to apply to non-Muslims.

At least two other smaller Muslim rebel groups also oppose the autonomy deal and have vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland.

The United States and other Western governments back the autonomy deal, partly to prevent the insurgency from breeding extremists who could threaten their countries.

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