Philippine troops kill 18 communist rebels

Philippine troops, backed by rocket-firing helicopters, killed at least 18 communist rebels in a remote northern farming town Tuesday in one of the bloodiest battles in months, officials said. The gunbattle broke out before dawn in a thickly forested mountain area near Santa Ignacia town in Tarlac province, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Manila, when about 25 New People's Army guerrillas opened fire on approaching army troops, officials said.

Police bolstered security after getting information that the guerrillas planned to attack Santa Ignacia and nearby San Jose town. Army soldiers scaled a mountain area, where the rebels have reportedly massed up, and were fired upon by the rebels, setting off the clash, according to police Senior Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome.

Army troops were backed by MG520 helicopters, which fired rockets on rebel positions during fierce clashes. In an apparent diversionary attack, a group of rebels strafed a cell phone transmission facility in San Jose and fled without hurting anybody, he said. "We have recovered 18 bodies and assorted firearms from the scene," said Lt. Col. Preme Monta, spokesman for the military's Northern Luzon Command. There were no immediate reports of casualties among government troops.

Four bodies of rebels were brought by helicopter and placed side by side by soldiers on the ground near a Roman Catholic church, attracting a large crowd of onlookers. Army troops and policemen stood guard near the corpses.

Soldiers couldn't retrieve the other bodies because rebel snipers would open fire every time they tried to get them, he said.

Army Col. Cesar Yano, who helped lead troops during the clash, played down speculation that some of those killed were innocent farmers. "If they are saying farmers, they should have been holding plows but they were carrying guns," he told reporters.

The army has vowed to launch a new wave of offensives this year after the guerrillas intensified attacks against military and police targets in recent months. A rebel land mine killed nine army soldiers and wounded 25 in November in central Iloilo province. The rebels have been waging a Marxist rebellion since the late 1960s. The military estimates they had more than 8,000 fighters last year, and the rebels claim to have a presence in nearly 70 of the Philippines' 79 provinces, reports the AP. I.L.

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