ILIGAN, Philippines  - Muslim separatist rebels launched a series of pre-dawn attacks in the restive southern Philippines Monday, killing at least 28 civilians and three soldiers, witnesses and officials said. President Gloria Arroyo branded the attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas as "sneaky and treacherous" and in clear violation of peace negotiations, and ordered the army to "defend every inch" of soil. AFP reporters saw nine bodies lying bloodied by a roadside in one village in Kauswagan town as black smoke billowed from burning houses. Five other civilians were killed in another village by the marauding MILF fighters, while six more bodies were found, also in Kauswagan, later Monday. All 20 bodies were taken by troops to two mortuaries in Iligan city a few kilometres (miles) away, an AFP reporter saw. In the town of Kolambugan, six civilians and three soldiers were killed, mayor Beltran Lumaque said in a radio interview. Among those killed was Colonel Angelo Benitez, an army brigade commander whose troops had engaged the rebels in intense gunbattles since dawn. Another rebel unit struck the town of Maasim, leaving two civilians dead as they ransacked a pawn shop and looted a drug store, said the military. Some of the dead had been hacked by machetes. The near-simultaneous assaults by hundreds of MILF rebels were in towns in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Sarangani, all on the island of Mindanao. More than 200 guerrillas fought intense gun battles with troops and police in the centre of the mainly Christian town of Kolambugan, said mayor Beltran Lumaque. "They have taken over the business centre, the rural banks, pawn shops," he told a Manila radio station, saying houses were on fire and many residents had fled heavy fighting in the town centre. "We need reinforcements," he urged, as the shooting continued. Provincial spokesman Lyndon Calica said MILF rebels had overrun and torched a police outpost and burned vehicles. Military forces repelled the rebels after more than nine hours of fighting. The retreating gunmen had taken as many as 50 civilians and used them as "human shields" but later freed them, the army said. In a nationwide address, Arroyo said she had ordered the armed forces and police to "defend every inch of Philippine territory against MILF forces" and restore peace in the affected areas. Arroyo added: "We will not tolerate and will crush any attempt to disturb peace and development in Mindanao," the country's main southern island where the MILF has been waging a separatist rebellion since 1978. The attacks were a "virtual declaration of war" by the MILF, military chief General Alexander Yano said in Manila. "The AFP (armed forces of the Philippines) shall not allow this to go on," Yano told a press conference. "We are taking military action to stop these atrocities perpetrated by the MILF." He said the developments were a "clear manifestation of the insincerity to the peace process of a significant portion of the MILF," and vowed to restore law and order as quickly as possible. The latest attacks came a day after MILF rebels ambushed a military convoy, killing four soldiers and three pro-government militiamen. Eight soldiers and three other militiamen were wounded in the attack. The MILF signed a ceasefire agreement with Manila in 2003 which opened the way for peace talks. However, on August 4 the Supreme Court halted a deal that would have given Muslims virtual autonomy in the south, sparking a backlash by rebel MILF units who attacked government positions and took over more than 20 villages in the province of North Cotabato. They were eventually repelled by the military with artillery and helicopter gunships.