MANILA, Philippines - Muslim guerrillas have completely withdrawn from 15 predominantly Christian villages in the southern Philippines, and the tens of thousands of residents can return to their homes once they have been cleared of booby traps, the military said Wednesday.
Shortly after the pullout, a fresh, 200-strong contingent of Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas tried to approach some of the abandoned villages late Tuesday but were forced back by air force helicopter gunships, said army Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna, who helped supervise the government offensive.
Since that skirmish, "the guns have fallen silent in North Cotabato," Luna told The Associated Press.
Army troops and police have cleared at least seven villages of the dangerous leftovers of the fierce, three-day battle, including unexploded ammunition, bombs and land mines, and could allow displaced residents to return any time.
The rest of the villages could be declared safe in a few days, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Armando Cunanan said.
"They have escaped. I don't want to use the word withdrawn because that word has some tinge of honor in it. These people are plain criminals," Luna said.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the guerrillas completed their pullout late Tuesday.
The conflict began when about 1,000 guerrillas occupied the North Cotabato villages in recent weeks, burning houses, looting farms and stealing cattle. After the rebels ignored a Friday government ultimatum to back off, the military unleashed a massive air and land assault on Sunday.
Philippine officials had initially reported nearly 160,000 villagers were displaced, leading to fears of a humanitarian crisis. But Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral corrected the figure after touring North Cotabato on Wednesday, saying only 80,000 were forced from their homes, with 16,000 going to government evacuation centers.
The rest of the displaced sought shelter in the homes of relatives. Doctors and social welfare workers were distributing food, water and other basic supplies. Children were being provided "play therapy" to kill boredom, Cabral told AP by telephone.
"They're not hungry," she said.
Overcrowding and respiratory ailments are an issue, "but these are under control by our doctors and medical workers," Cabral said, adding that most of the residents could return to their homes by Friday at the most.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, who also checked the villages with Cabral, called reports of a possible humanitarian disaster "exaggerated."
The North Cotabato conflict, which the military said killed two soldiers and up to 31 rebels, comes at a crucial juncture in peace negotiations between the government and the rebels. The rebels have been waging a decades-long rebellion for self-rule in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south.
The two sides, which signed a 2003 cease-fire, had reached agreement on the size of a future expanded Muslim homeland. But the signing of the accord was halted last week by the Supreme Court, which acted on a petition filed by Christian politicians wary of losing land and power to Muslims.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.