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Filipino Christian vigilantes get set for battle

Roman Catholic militiamen are gearing up for clashes with Muslim rebels again, more than 30 years after all-out communal war tore through the island of Mindanao.

Fighters: 'Commander Max' mingled recently with his fellow Filipino Christian vigilantes in the town of Aleosan, in the Philippines' troubled region of Mindanao.

Jonathan adams

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On a muddy, shaded track between fertile farmlands, 30 men lounge in flip-flops and tattered camoflauge, displaying their beaten-up M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles.

They call themselves ilaga or "rats" in a local Philippines dialect. They're vigilantes: Christian farmers who have taken up arms to protect their land and families against Muslim rebels in this troubled corner of the southern Philippines.

Most have no military training, says their puckish leader Felimon Cayang, who styles himself "Commander Max." He shows off his souped-up M-16, tattoos, and religious "amulets" – patches tied to his necklace and underwear bearing images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and worn for protection in battle.

He says his group held their own in a day-long firefight in July with a much larger group of Muslim rebels led by Commander Umbra Kato, just a few miles away.

They suffered no casualties. As for the other side, Commander Max says with clear satisfaction, "I don't know how many we killed, but we found blood."

Here on the island of Mindanao, such Roman Catholic vigilantes haven't been a force since the 1970s, when all-out communal war raged. Their return now, some 30 years later, is a sign of a society that's again become dangerously polarized along religious lines.

It's one sad consequence of the breakdown of peace talks between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Four months after talks broke down, the military is still engaged in a deadly, cat-and-mouse game with three "rogue" commanders, including Mr. Kato. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians remain in makeshift camps, afraid to return to their homes. And Malaysian monitors who helped enforce a cease-fire left Nov. 30 after their mandate expired.

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