Muslim rebels in the Philippines are ready to "fight back" after the government warned it would go after them if they sheltered outlaws, a spokesman said Monday.
Fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are prepared for a possible assault, their spokesman Von al-Haq said, adding the group remains committed to peace talks with the government.
"We have already ordered our men on the ground to be in defensive positions. But that is over the apprehension that there may be an attack," he told reporters.
"If we are pushed to the wall, we have to fight back. That's very clear."
His warnings came after the military said the MILF could be targeted if it continues to shelter "lawless elements" -- despite a ceasefire to end a decades-old rebellion that has left 150,000 dead since the 1970s.
Over recent weeks, military and police pursuit of outlaws in the southern Philippines have turned into pitched battles with MILF-linked forces that left as many as 40 soldiers, police and civilians dead.
While the MILF eventually disowned some of those being pursued, it has admitted responsibility for the killing of 19 soldiers in the southern island of Basilan, saying they intruded on rebel territory.
Military spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos said that despite the MILF's fears, a ceasefire mechanism was still in place that would prevent violence between the two sides.
He also said upcoming informal talks between the MILF and the government in early-November would hopefully ease the tensions.
"We will wait for the feedback from what happens in the peace talks in November," Burgos said.
The 12,000-strong MILF are engaged in peace talks with the government and have a ceasefire in place. However the recent violent clashes have stoked popular anger against the rebel group, with growing calls for an "all-out war" against the rebels.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has said he remained committed to the peace process despite the recent violence.