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Special Election in Lanao del Sur province in southern Philippines on Saturday, 26 May 2007. The congressional and local elections, covering 13 towns in the Muslim-majority province are held under heavy security to avert possible violence after authorities suspended the 14 May national mid-term polls due to threats of violence from armed gangs and political warlords.

(Mindanao Examiner Photo Service/Mark Navales)

LANAO DEL SUR (Mindanao Examiner / 26 May) – Armed clashes and violence marred Saturday’s special elections in the Muslim autonomous province of Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines, officials said.

Three government soldiers guarding the polls were killed and three others, including two civilians, were injured in separate attacks in the province.

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) held special polls in 13 towns in Lanao del Sur where massive fraud and cheating had been reported by an independent elections watchdog, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).

Tension was high before and after elections in the province where gunmen randomly attacked polling places with grenades and rifle fires.

There were no reports of arrests, but authorities blamed armed supporters of politicians as behind the attacks.

Fighting between policemen and armed gangs erupted in the towns of Kapay, Butig and Pualas and that an undetermined number of election inspectors were reported missing.

It was unknown whether they had been abducted or hiding for fear they would be coerced into siding with politicians.

Many villagers said they failed to cast their votes because of the presence of gunmen, who were followers of opposing politicians.

The military said unidentified gunmen attacked the municipal hall of Masiu.

“They fired two rounds of mortar rockets. There were no reports of casualties,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro told the independent regional newspaper, the Mindanao Examiner.

Other reports said there were attempts by armed men to seized ballot boxes in Lanao del Sur. Poll watchers of opposing politicians also engaged in street brawls.

But COMELEC Commissioner Rene Sarmiento insisted the polls were peaceful. “It is generally peaceful,” he said.

But the police said it recorded more than a dozen rocket and grenade attacks in Lanao del Sur during special elections.

On Friday, one soldier was also killed and two civilians had been wounded in separate gun attacks in the towns of Tugaya and Pualas towns.

The head of the PPCRV, Tita de Villa, who was monitoring the polls in Lanao del Sur, said she was a witness to massive cheating and fraud in the province.

She claimed she saw one election inspector hid official ballots inside her bag and that in other polling areas there were two sets of voters’ lists.

“You can’t really vote freely because everybody is at your neck. The climate is impossible for people to vote freely and orderly. From what we see, I think there will be failure of elections again,” De Villa said.

Police forces also guarded the towns of Butig and Pualas and other areas where Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are actively operating. Authorities fear the rebels may side with politicians allied with the MILF.

But the MILF said security forces should keep a close watch on private armies and goons of politicians who were behind attempts to sabotage the elections. The MILF said it does not take part in any Filipino elections.

“The MILF has a strict policy about Philippine elections. We do not take part in any elections or in partisan politics and our members have strict orders to stay inside their camps,” rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu told the Mindanao Examiner in a separate interview.

Manila is currently negotiating peace with the MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, since 2001. (With reports from Mark Navales, Becky de Asis, Merlyn Manos and Juan Magtanggol)

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