MANILA, Philippines (AP) — More than 100 breakaway Muslim guerrillas launched attacks against army troops in the southern Philippines, sparking clashes that killed five soldiers and at least seven insurgents in an apparent attempt to spoil peace talks between the government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the military said Sunday.
The daylong clashes involving the hardline Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters erupted Saturday in the marshy hinterlands of Datu Piang town in Maguindanao province and in villages of nearby North Cotabato province, said regional army spokesman Capt. Anthony Bulao. Army forces were firing artillery rounds against the rebels Sunday in a mountain encampment, he said.
Hundreds of villagers fled from Datu Piang, an impoverished rural town about 900 kilometers (560 miles) southeast of Manila, officials said.
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 they have gone nowhere, and has vowed to continue a rebellion for a separate Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.
Despite the rebel infighting, the peace talks have progressed in recent years and were scheduled to resume Monday in Malaysia to try to iron out differences in a wealth-sharing pact 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,” Bulao said of the breakaway guerrillas. “They’re one of the spoilers of the peace talks.”
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 gunbattle, military officials said. The attackers later withdrew and were being pursued by reinforcement troops.
Another group of 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 the nearby village of Paidu Pulangi in Pikit town in North Cotabato province.
At least seven rebels were killed and seven others were wounded, Bulao said, citing reports from the army troops.