MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Police are seeking murder and kidnapping charges against members of a Muslim rebel faction for a rampage that killed dozens of combatants and forced thousands of villagers to flee in the southern Philippines last month, officials said Wednesday.
Police forwarded criminal complaints to prosecutors in southern Maguindanao province this week against Ameril Umbra Kato, a hardline Muslim rebel leader with alleged links to key Asian terror suspects, and at least 113 other commanders and fighters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, national police investigation chief Director Samuel Pagdilao said.
Kato's forces broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been engaged in peace talks with the government for years.
Kato opposes the Malaysian-brokered negotiations, arguing that the talks have gone nowhere. He has vowed to continue a bloody rebellion for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Abu Misri Mammah, a spokesman for Kato's forces, said the criminal raps would not scare his group from abandoning the rebellion and warned government forces from attempting to make arrests. "You don't have to bring the warrants of arrest. We don't recognize that," Mammah said in a telephone interview. "Bring your guns because you'll be welcomed by the nozzles of our weapons."
After breaking off from the Moro group, Kato's forces initially kept a low profile in their mountain encampments of Maguindanao, a violent region about 900 kilometers (560 miles) south of Manila, and he had a stroke in November, throwing uncertainty over his group.
However, on Aug. 5, about 200 armed fighters from Kato's groups launched rifle, grenade and mortar attacks against more than a dozen army camps and outposts along a key highway in Maguindanao and in nearby North Cotabato province, killing six soldiers, a police officer and at least two civilians.
A weeks-long army offensive that followed killed about 50 of Kato's fighters and led to the capture of his main encampment and smaller strongholds in Maguindanao before sporadic fighting subsided, according to the military.
During last month's attacks, Kato's forces looted farming villages, burned houses and briefly held villagers hostage to keep advancing troops away, officials said.
Mammah told The Associated Press by telephone that his group has decided not to launch any more attacks indefinitely after its key commanders granted an appeal by their former group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to give the peace talks a chance by suspending assaults on government forces. The agreement was forged in a meeting of rebel commanders from both sides this week, he said.
"We'll be on a defensive mode unless we're attacked," he said, adding his group still believed the talks would not achieve anything.
The ailing Kato and his commanders remain at large and were being hunted by troops and police, Pagdilao said.
U.S. and Philippine security officials suspect that Kato has provided support and refuge to key Southeast Asian terror suspects, including Basit Usman, a Filipino militant long wanted for deadly bombings in the south and his alleged links to the regional militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. Washington has offered a $1 million reward for the capture or killing of Usman, a bomb-making expert.
Kato, in past interviews with AP, has denied Usman was with his rebel faction or that he had worked with him to launch terror attacks.