MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Troops were pursuing a group of Muslim rebels Tuesday who attacked multiple army outposts in the southern Philippines, leaving seven people dead and paralyzing a major highway that was in the path of rebel sniper fire.
More than 200 fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement launched simultaneous attacks on army camps and detachments in four towns in Maguindanao province and two outposts in North Cotabato province late Sunday.
The fighting continued throughout the day Monday and into Tuesday as troops tried to track down the gunmen. The pursuit was complicated by rebel snipers taking aim at soldiers.
Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, citing military reports, said two attackers were killed during the initial clashes. Eight people, including five soldiers and militiamen, were wounded.
Army Col. Mayoraldo dela Cruz said one of his soldiers was killed and two others were wounded when the gunmen fired grenades on his brigade headquarters in Maguindanao late Monday.
Two off-duty and unarmed soldiers were stopped and killed by rebels Monday on a highway near Maguindanao's Datu Unsay town and a third soldier was abducted, said army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc. Two villagers were found dead on the same highway.
"One of the soldiers was repeatedly struck on the face with rifle butts before being shot in the head, while the other had many hack wounds," Cabunoc said.
The rebel group, led by commander Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is involved in peace talks with the government brokered by Malaysia. Kato's group has opposed the negotiations.
Kato has 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 the breakaway rebels, said they 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 Monday, adding his group has no further plans to carry out attacks unless government forces assault its hinterland strongholds.
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 Philippine government said the attacks by Kato's forces were meant to derail the negotiations but added the violence would not affect the peace talks with the larger Moro group.
The fighting is among the worst since 2008, when the peace talks bogged down, igniting clashes between Moro Islamic Liberation Front 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 cease-fire.