MANILA — Gunmen from a breakaway Muslim rebel group attacked army outposts in the southern Philippines, sparking clashes that killed at least three people and shattered years of calm in the notoriously violent region, officials said Monday.
Dozens of armed fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement launched simultaneous attacks on army camps and detachments in four towns in Maguindanao province late Sunday, Governor Esmael Mangudadatu said, adding that sporadic clashes were continuing Monday.
He said two attackers were killed in Maguindanao along with a villager who was hit by stray gunfire as he traveled on a motorcycle along a highway. Eight people, including five soldiers and militiamen, were wounded in the violence, officials said.
At the height of the attacks, about 8,500 villagers fled from their homes and 11 of Maguindanao’s 36 towns lost power, officials said. They said the gunmen probably destroyed power lines in the mountainous region, about 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila.
The 200-strong rebel group, led by commander Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is involved in ongoing peace talks with the government brokered by Malaysia. Kato’s group has opposed the negotiations.
Kato vowed to continue fighting for an independent homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. He had a stroke in November, plunging his group into uncertainty.
Abu Misri Mammah, a spokesman for Kato’s group, said the rebels were avenging the death of a fellow militant who was killed when army troops advanced on a guerrilla stronghold in Maguindanao last June. “This is our revenge and this is part of our jihad (holy war),” Mammah told The Associated Press by telephone, adding his group has no further plans to carry out attacks unless government forces assault its hinterland strongholds.
Soldiers and police were pursuing the fleeing gunmen Monday.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front ordered its rebels to remain in their encampments as government forces battled the breakaway guerrillas. Spokesman Von Al Haq said his group did not want to be accidentally drawn into the fighting.
The presidential adviser on the peace talks, Teresita Deles, said the attacks by Kato’s forces were meant to derail the negotiations.
The fighting is among the worst since 2008, when the peace talks bogged down, igniting clashes between MILF forces and government troops in Maguindanao and outlying provinces. That fighting killed hundreds and displaced 750,000 people before the two sides agreed to a ceasefire. — AP