More than 100 breakaway Muslim guerrillas launched attacks against Army troops in the southern Philippines, sparking clashes that killed five soldiers and scores of insurgents who wanted to undermine peace talks between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group in the country, the military said on Sunday.
The daylong clashes involving the hard-line Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters erupted on Saturday in the marshy outskirts of Datu Piang and Shariff Saydona Mustapha towns in Maguindanao province and in a coastal village of nearby North Cotabato province. Army forces were firing artillery rounds against the rebels on Sunday in a mountain encampment, said regional Army spokesman Capt. Anthony Bulao.
The Muslim guerrillas involved in the fighting broke off from the largest Muslim rebel group in the country, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, two years ago. The rebel faction led by commander Ameril Umbra Kato has rejected the talks between the main rebel group and the government, saying the talks have gone nowhere, and vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Despite the rebel infighting, the peace talks have progressed in recent years and were scheduled to resume on Monday in Malaysia to try to iron out differences in a proposed revenue-sharing accord that would be a pillar of an emerging Muslim autonomy deal.
“There have been reports that they wanted to commit atrocities to sabotage the talks,” Capt. Bulao said of the breakaway guerrillas.
Suspected fighters of the rebel faction detonated a powerful bomb on a roadside as an Army truck drove by in Datu Piang, killing an Army lieutenant and two soldiers and setting off a running gunbattle. The attackers later withdrew and were being pursued by reinforcement troops, military officials said.
Officials of Shariff Saydona Mustapha town near Datu Piang reported up to 18 rebel deaths in the sporadic clashes, Army Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
Another group of breakaway rebels, waiting in ambush behind coconut trees on the coast, opened fire on about 30 Army troops aboard three approaching motor boats, killing two soldiers and sparking a gunfight in Paidu Pulangi village in Pikit town in nearby North Cotabato province. At least seven rebels were killed in the clash, Capt. Bulao said, citing reports from the Army troops.
Army forces were taking steps to prevent the rebels from attacking North Cotabato’s Christian communities and taking control of a major highway, according to Capt. Bulao.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters encamped near the scene of Saturday’s clashes moved safely away to avoid being drawn into the fighting, rebel spokesman Von al Haq said, adding the violence would not likely affect the peace talks.
“I believe any such fighting could not derail the peace process because the parties involved have peace as a common agenda,” Mr. al Haq said. He said the breakaway group has around 300 to 500 fighters and “has become very isolated.”