Twenty die in one day during fresh unrest caused by militants in southern Philippines

MANILA (AFP) - Twenty people died in a single day in the southern Philippines following a fresh outbreak of unrest in the strife-torn region, officials said on Saturday.

The military earlier said that 15 people were killed on Friday after heavy fighting between government forces and Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the jungle region, where various Muslim extremist and bandit groups are active.

Three plantation workers including a father and son were shot dead in the southern island of Basilan on Friday in a suspected extortion attempt, said Senior Inspector Gean Gallardo, police chief of the island's capital. "These three victims are just ordinary workers who have no axe to grind with anybody," he said.

On the same day, an eight-year-old girl and a 43-year-old man were killed by a mortar shell fired by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the southern town of Pikit, said regional military spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso.

The rebels had fired the mortars to drive off the police and military men who were trying to arrest one of their commanders, he said.

The military had previously said six soldiers and nine fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf extremist group were slain in fighting on Jolo island in the southern Sulu archipelago on Friday.

Regional military spokesman, Captain Rowena Muyuela, said the incidents were not directly linked: "They all involve different groups."

However, she said the increased violence was a result of government efforts to capture various outlaws.

"These are all because of intensified law-enforcement operations," she told AFP.

Set up in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, the Abu Sayyaf, based in the islands of Basilan and Sulu, has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the Philippines' history, including bombings and mass kidnappings of Christians and foreigners.

The group is believed to be holding at least 13 other hostages, including five foreigners, according the Philippine military.

The BIFF in turn are based in the major southern island of Mindanao and split from the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in 2008 as the MILF engaged in peace talks with the government.

The 10,000-strong MILF signed a peace agreement with the government in March but the BIFF, which is believed to have just a few hundred fighters, has rejected the agreement and vowed to fight on for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines.